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Old West Special Trails


By Leigh Ballard

For twenty years Debbie and Danny Cooley have been operating Old West Special Trails (OWST), currently located north of Collierville, TN. It is a hub of activity for kids and horses – a boarding, lesson, horse show, and summer camps facility. In a usual summer, there’s a new camp each week over a ten week period, teaching twelve new campers per week all about the joys of horses. They learn to groom and care for their mounts, and the basics of riding. Every Friday morning in the summer the campers put on a horseshow to display their new skills and show their parents what they’ve learned. Two or three times a year, OWST puts on a larger, more varied horse show for the boarders that is also open to the public. Lessons and trail riding go on all year.

During their 20 year adventure, the Cooleys have relocated seven times. The properties they’ve used have always been leased land. They come in and build the barns, put up fences, and create the facility. Then after a period of time the land is sold and the Cooleys have to leave it all behind, only to start somewhere new. They are now on property which includes a 14-stall barn, round pens, a show size arena, and 100 acres where the students and boarders can trail ride. Much to everyone’s dismay, this property is for sale, too.

The Cooley’s boarders are about 80% children and teens. “We don’t really know exactly how that happened,” Debbie laughs. “We have some adult boarders, but Danny and I both are very kid oriented and we seem to attract a lot of kids because of that. They call us ‘the children’s place,’ and that’s a really neat distinction for us.”

The Cooleys have some strict rules about safety and behavior, and the kids and parents like that. “Even though we might have some inconveniences here, we don’t have electricity, for example, the kids feel like it’s a safe place and a fun place to be. Everyone appreciates the family values that are practiced here.” She adds, “Many of my boarders are my helpers in the camps.  So many want to work for me that I have to divide them among the camps, so they all get an opportunity to work. I had 35 applications to work in the camps this year!”

Several years ago, the Cooleys changed their business to 501(c) 3 non-profit status. About that time, they started working with special needs children. These children were siblings of boarders and their friends whose parents knew how useful horses can be for children with disabilities. “The Therapy Hut in Memphis got on board with us and sends us referrals. There’s such a need for this kind of activity. We have kids on a waiting list. It’s all word of mouth; we don’t advertise it,” Debbie says. “All of our special needs students must have a doctor’s permission to ride with us. We are not a therapeutic riding center. What we are is a barn with a lot of very sweet volunteers and some really sweet horses. We offer group lessons that are geared for special needs children with mental and physical disabilities. For five weeks every spring and five weeks every fall we offer our Trailblazers class on Saturdays: two classes each Saturday with 8 kids per class.”

The facility is home to more than 75 horses. Many of these are boarders, but about twenty belong to the business.  These twenty are used for lessons and camps and some are leased to students who can’t buy a horse. The upkeep for that many horses is phenomenal! “We feed about 500 round rolls in the winter. Besides the hay, the feed and veterinary expenses are staggering.” Debbie and Danny do most of the work at the barn themselves. “Our passion and our hearts are in this,” she says.  Debbie is on site most of the time. Danny is a little bit more behind the scenes because he holds an outside job, too, to help supplement the funds needed for the operation.

“Anything we offer is available to any child who wants it. We actively seek and accept donations and sponsors. Children whose families can’t pay for what we offer can fill out a financial aid form, and then we seek sponsors for those children. That way, we are able to give the joy of horses and all the skills and learning that come along with it to kids who might not otherwise ever discover it. We would love to have enough grant or sponsorship money to lease more horses to kids so they can be more full time with the animals.”

Regarding the potential sale of the current home for OWST, Debbie says,” Our biggest goal right now is for OWST to own its own property. We really like this property where we have already established a good program. We want to continue to enrich children’s lives using horses as tools. We want to expand our mission with special needs kids and implement new programs. We want to make some permanent improvements and invest in new amenities. There is so much we want to do, but moving to a new location would really set us back.”

For more information about Old West Special Trails visit www.oldwestspecialtrails.orgor call Debbie or Danny Cooley at 901-490-5555.

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