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A smiling Debbie Shelton prepares her horse Harley for an evening riding session.
Hope Ranch co-owner Debbie Shelton prepares her horse, Harley, for an evening riding session. (Photo by Jacey Bivin)

Riding For Hope

Monday, January 9, 2023

Media Contact: Kaitlyn Weldon | Digital Communications Specialist | 405-744-7063 |

Imagine the feeling of climbing into a saddle, all your worries washing away as you focus on guiding the horse beneath you.

This feeling is what Oklahoma State University agricultural economics alumnus Darrell Shelton and his wife, Debbie, OSU elementary education alumna, wanted to share with others when they started Hope Ranch therapeutic riding center in 2005.

After listening to a radio broadcast about a rescue horse ranch helping troubled families, the idea for the Hope Ranch started coming together, Debbie Shelton said. Hearing the broadcast on two different occasions seemed like a sign the ranch was meant to be, she added.

Located in Ponca City, Oklahoma, Hope Ranch offers riding lessons that often turn into life lessons for children and youth, teaching them not only to ride but also to care for the horses.

“We like to stay one-on-one with the riders,” Darrell Shelton said.

The Sheltons have worked together since the beginning, he said, but they appreciate the help of volunteers.

During summer 2022, Hope Ranch had up to 12 riders per week and had two riders per hour-long session in the evenings, costing $35 each session, Darrell Shelton said.

“We teach them from the ground up,” Darrell Shelton said, “starting with safety, grooming, what tack they need, how to put it on properly, how to lead the horse and how to ride.”

The two horses used by students, Twink and Harley, are trained well enough to help students gain core muscles, balance, confidence and self-esteem as they ride, Darrell Shelton said. Originally, the students were mainly children with disabilities, but over time, interest in the ranch grew by word of mouth and the gates were opened for all students ages 5 or older, Debbie Shelton said.

“I was thinking about myself and how good it makes me feel when I ride, and I am an able-bodied person,” Debbie Shelton said. “Everybody has their own special needs.”

One student at Hope Ranch was unable to walk without crutches before she began riding bareback.

At first, she was barely able to sit on the horse, but the heat from the horse warmed her muscles, relaxing them so she could walk with more ease after riding.

“We’ve had non-verbal riders who after a few sessions would talk to us or the horses,” Darrell Shelton said.

“One of the parents was at the fence crying so we walked over to ask why,” he said. “She replied, ‘My daughter doesn’t talk. This is the most we’ve seen her talk in days.’”

Hope Ranch is a safe place for students to learn and to grow not only in their physical riding journeys but also in their journeys to overall joy and positive self-esteem, said Hayley Tarr, a 15-year-old rider at Hope Ranch.

Getting to ride at Hope Ranch and learning from the Sheltons helps relieve stress, Tarr said.

“She is happier on the weeks she rides,” said Yvonne Tarr, Hayley’s mother. “The amount of time they give up for these kids is just amazing.”

The students are not the only ones to benefit from lessons at Hope Ranch, Debbie Shelton said. The riders often teach lessons of their own in patience and faith, she added.

The Hope Ranch’s mission is to give hope and renewal to those who need it, whether that be the riders, parents or instructors, Debbie Shelton said.

“Some people think they don’t have any hope at all,” Debbie Shelton said. “We know they do and want to show them how to renew that hope.”

Finding a riding center near you

Looking for a therapeutic riding center in your area?

Oklahoma has therapeutic riding centers across the state, many specializing in riders with disabilities and providing individuals with special treatment.

The Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International, a non–profit organization, focuses onhelping individuals find the therapeutic riding center best suited for them.

The PATH website allows you to search for therapeutic riding centers in your area.


Story By: Jacey Bivin | Cowboy Journal 

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