Thomas builds equine program at Serenbe
by Clay Neely - firstname.lastname@example.org
On a beautiful spring afternoon, deep in the forest in Chattahoochee Hill country, four horses make their way slowly up a wooded trail while the warm rays of sunlight peek through the branches.
Leading this trail ride is Ashley Thomas, a 27-year-old native of Palmetto. Thomas will occasionally chat with other riders, but, more often, she prefers to allow the sound of the wind and hooves to fill the long pauses.
Thomas’ love of horses began at an early age. When she was 5, her father purchased her first horse, a Quarter Horse mare named Coco.
“My dad really was indifferent regarding horses,” Thomas said. “He really didn’t care about them one way or the other. The rest of my family was terrified of them, so I have no idea where my interest in them comes from.”
By the age of 10, Thomas was enveloped in the world of equestrianism — competing in show jumping, cross country and dressage.
In 2011, Thomas graduated from West Georgia Technical College and began looking for a job in radiology. She quickly became dismayed by what she found.
“The market was horrible at the time,” Thomas said. “There were mostly part-time positions, but that wasn’t what I was looking for.”
In the meantime, Thomas continued to search the classifieds. She came across an ad for a trail guide. Thomas assumed this would be yet another part-time position, but decided to check it out anyway.
Upon meeting with Garnie Nygren, director of operations at Serenbe, Nygren revealed to her that while the community was, in fact, seeking a trail guide, they didn’t quite have a trail business to put Thomas in. Not yet, anyway.
“She asked me if I’d be interested in getting the program started,” Thomas said. “She gave me free rein to oversee the entire operation. I took the challenge immediately — and never looked back.”
Thomas had her work cut out for her. She began the venture with only two horses and two very old saddles.
“There wasn’t enough tack or equipment to do much of anything,” she recalled. “I had to start from the bottom up.” She began a search for new horses. For the trail, they couldn’t be just any horses. They had to possess a very specific temperament in order to fit Thomas’ criteria.
When she felt that she found a qualified horse, Thomas spent one month getting it trained to her satisfaction. After she felt the horse was ready, she would repeat the process.
“We now have 11,” Thomas said proudly — their stable comprised of Quarter Horses, Appalachians and one Percheron.
The popularity of her program is expanding as well. In 2011, Thomas began offering a summer camp program. While the initial group included only two participants, this year the camp is filled to capacity and there is a deep waiting list.
Along with the trail riding, summer camp and lessons, Thomas would ultimately like to see the riding lesson program expanded in order to integrate an equine therapy program.
This type of treatment includes equine activities and/or an equine environment in order to promote physical, occupational, and emotional growth in persons suffering from ADD, anxiety, autism, cerebral palsy, dementia, depression, developmental delay, genetic syndromes (such as Down Syndrome), traumatic brain injuries, behavioral issues, abuse issues, and many other mental health problems.’ Since horses have similar behaviors with humans, such as social and responsive behaviors, Thomas feels the connection between the horse and the patient is a natural one.
Having been a volunteer with the CORRAL (Coweta Organization for Riding Rehabilitation And Learning) barn since she was 13, she has witnessed the impact that equine therapy has on handicapped children and believes her horses would be a perfect fit.
“This group of horses are so easygoing and relaxed,” Thomas said. “Their temperament would be absolutely ideal.”
Even with the challenges of keeping the program running, Thomas has an unwavering smile.
It takes her a minute to focus on the challenges she’s faced since going to work at Serenbe. “I suppose the hardest part of the job is just keeping an eye on the growth. I don’t want to grow too fast. We could bring in more people and more horses but you have to ensure that the horses, or myself, don’t get too exhausted.”
While Thomas keeps her eyes directly on the future, she still keeps her radiology credentials up to date, just in case she ever needs to fall back on them.
“Especially since I spent so much time in school, I worked too hard not to keep them up to date,” Thomas said. “Honestly, I just see myself doing this for the foreseeable future. I really love what I do. When does an opportunity like this arise in your life? It’s all I really want to do.”