Putting Individuals with Intellectual Disabilities in the Winner’s Circle

Richard “RD” Sedillo, Heather Hernandez-Sedillo, Peggy and Tom Hernandez.

Cover Story | By Patti Parish-Kaminski | Photos by Kelley Sweet Photography –

Three thousand three hundred volunteer hours. Over 300 clients. Eighteen equine staff members – the official title for this organization’s valued horse team members – with only five staff instructors, one mental health specialist and 151 volunteer slots to fill each week.  And that’s just one year in review – 2022 – for Reining Strength Therapeutic Horsemanship. 

This small but mighty organization co-founded in 2014 by the Hernandez family has not only run for the roses toward their goal of serving children and adults in Fort Bend County and the Greater West Houston area with their passion for horses, service and individuals with special needs, they are putting their clients in the winner’s circle with help from one of man’s best friends:  horses.

Lifelong Advocacy

Team Reining Strength: Jellybean, Gaby Stephens, Dana Peterson, TJ Hernandez, Heather Hernandez-Sedillo, Richard “RD” Sedillo, Corinna Glueck, Kaitlin Kristiansson and Maxine.

In 2014, Tom and Peggy Hernandez, along with their daughter Heather Hernandez-Sedillo, co-founded Reining Strength Therapeutic Horsemanship (RSTH).  Advocating for individuals for intellectual disabilities was nothing new for the Hernandez family.   In fact, one might say it is a Hernandez family legacy.  “Dad has a 60-year-old brother, David, who has an intellectual disability, so my parents and grandparents were lifelong advocates,” shared Heather.  “Starting Reining Strength was a natural fit for our family – it’s Granny and Grandpa’s legacy.”

While caring about individuals with physical, cognitive, social or emotional needs was always a part of Heather’s life, she had also always loved horses and that love continued in her professional career.  Her family had a ranch and when the mineral rights on the property gave the Hernandez family an opportunity to do something good, they knew what arena needed their help.  Heather, with her Bachelor’s Degree in Social Work from Baylor University and her Master’s in Community Counseling from Texas Tech University, was on faculty in the Animal Science Department at Texas Tech where she served as the Co-Director of the University’s Therapeutic Riding Center.  But there came a moment one day that it became crystal clear that founding an organization to provide equine assisted services was her calling.

“I was at the Waco Center for Youth one day,” shared Heather.  “There was a little boy who had seen his mother commit suicide, and he was suffering from selected mutism.”  Selected mutism is an anxiety disorder characterized by a person’s inability to speak.  “The child hadn’t spoken since, and it had been over a year.  He snuck away from the group and went into one of the horse’s stalls.  He put his arms around that horse and told him his story.  I was just blown away.  That horse was the catalyst for him to begin speaking again.  I knew right away this is what I wanted to do – to help people with horses.  That experience is what sold it for me.”

The Birth of Reining Strength Therapeutic Horsemanship

Raised in Fort Bend, Heather returned home to embark on a new journey:  founding with her parents, Tom and Peggy Hernandez, a Premier Accredited Center through the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship, International (PATH Intl.), to provide equine assisted services for people ages two and up – children and adults – who have physical, cognitive, social or emotional needs.  That center became Reining Strength Therapeutic Horsemanship.

Equine team member Morales with Executive Director Heather Hernandez-Sedillo.

At the time, she was dating a life-long equestrian from New Mexico who was an accomplished trainer in the racetrack industry.  She invited Richard “RD” Sedillo to come with her to help realize her dream.  “He said yes,” said Heather, who credits RD as a vital part of RSTH as the Equine and Facilities Manager.  “RD is instrumental in training our instructors and students, conditioning our equine staff and keeping them healthy.  Because of his veterinary experience, he’s also able to serve as our vet tech, which saves us so much on vet bills.”

RSTH began on FM 359 in Richmond and began to grow rapidly.  “The community really embraced us,” said Heather, who serves as Executive Director and credits their growth to their amazing volunteer base.  “We rely heavily on volunteers; we have to fill 151 volunteer slots each week.  We’ve built an amazing core base with many volunteers who have been here since the very beginning.  We have many retired individuals, some stay at home moms, professionals who come after work and some high schoolers.  We are also a core placement for Fort Bend Junior Service League, which has been really great helping out day to day but also helping promote us in the community.”

RSTH’s very first volunteer, Fran Zwick, “loves every minute helping at Reining Strength.”  And she must because she still volunteers with them nine years later.  “I could use my hands to clean house, or I could use them to help someone else.  Every time I leave here, my heart is full, and I have a big smile on my face.”

Therapeutic Horsemanship and Equine Assisted Learning

Volunteer Allen Carr, client Eddie Knight riding Keke the pony, Equine and Facilities Manager Richard “RD” Sedillo and volunteer Fran Zwick.

By 2017, the Hernandez family relocated their growing organization to their permanent home, 7126 FM 359 Road in Richmond, a process that took several years but was well worth the effort.  Today, RSTH provides both therapeutic horsemanship for ages two thru adults to assist with physical and cognitive needs, as well as equine assisted learning, which is all on the ground, not on horseback, but working with the animals.

Heather explained that therapeutic horsemanship assists with a multitude of issues, including individuals with Downs Syndrome, cerebral palsy and Spina Bifida, at risk children and youth and survivors of abuse and trauma.  RSTH currently partners with Child Advocates, GiGi’s Playhouse, Houston Methodist Hospital, Park’s Youth Ranch and Arms Wide Post Adoption Services.

“The physical part of therapeutic horsemanship is a horse moves you in three planes:  side to side, back-to-back and rotationally,” said Heather.  “This works to strengthen the core and helps with balance.  Clients who use wheelchairs to hold them up after riding and increasing their core strength can now sit up on their own. That’s life changing because they can now sit up at the table to eat.  This translates into daily living skills.”

Horses provide input into the body, which assists with autism.  “A horse’s input that is concussive or rough is grounding like a strong hug,” explained Heather.  “In children with autism who have sensory overload or meltdowns, these episodes decrease for several days after riding.”

For non-verbal clients, therapeutic horsemanship “ties into the spinal chord and brain.”  According to Heather, “The movement primes the body.  Moms tell me kids who are non-verbal make sounds the whole way home – babbling away – because they get bi-lateral stimulation to the brain from the horse.”

Equine team member Morales with client Andres Cortez.

Equine assisted learning is a ground-breaking program that Heather is excited to offer at RSTH, and it’s a field she knows a little something about having recently co-authored a textbook for the industry. The Comprehensive Guide to Equine-Assisted Activities and Therapies is the first peer-reviewed textbook of its kind, and it’s used in universities across the country including, Texas A & M University and Texas Tech University.

In 2002, RSTH began an equine assisted learning program with Houston Methodist West Hospital nurses as support for nurses and healthcare professionals who had struggled since COVID.  A nurse researcher conducted research during the six sessions measuring compassion, fatigue and PTSD, with the data showing improvement.  “It was eye opening spending time with the nurses and hearing their stories about all that they experienced through COVID,” said Heather.  “Our program provided ways to help them let go, move forward and deal with their symptoms.  I admire Methodist for investing in their employees, for seeing a need. This year, the Sugar Land hospital is joining us in the program, and we’re very excited.”

Going for the Gold

Many barns compete in rodeos and shows in or near their home towns, so why not the riders at RSTH?  Until five years ago, the only opportunities for these kids to compete in shows were to travel:  Fort Worth, Houston and the area and state Special Olympics.

“RD and I are both Special Olympics Equestrian Coaches, and we take our riders to both Fort Worth and the Houston Livestock and Rodeo Top Hands Horse Show but not everyone can always travel,” said Heather.

Enter long-time volunteer and supporter Noell Myska.  “I asked the question, ‘Why can’t these kids rodeo at the Fort Bend County Fair?’”

Myska called on Fair Director Claudia Wright, and the Old 300 Horse Show open to PATH Int’l certified barns was born at the Fort Bend County Fair.  The show classes are based on skill level, and winners receive ribbons and belt buckles.  The show is run by about 50 volunteers, and sponsors donate the prizes and lunch.

Myska has helped organize the event every year, a volunteer position she has no plans on passing the reins.  “These kids are amazing.  I’ve seen doctors tell parents ‘no’ too many times – tell parents their children will never do this or that.  And then I’ve seen these same children prove them wrong after riding a horse.  That’s the magic of Reining Strength.”

Healing Hearts and Hooves

While volunteers are at the core of RSTH’s program, their equine staff is their strength and greatest need.  “We have 18 equine mouths to feed and care for,” said Heather, who shared the cost of hay went up 30% and grain up 33% per bag in the past year.

One hundred percent of the equine team members are donated, either the horse itself is donated or the funds to purchase the animal is donated. And there is a retirement plan in place for these valued team members.  “We have one horse that’s now 22,” shared Heather.  “And they let us know when they are ready to retire.”

Their team ranges from Mikey the miniature horse to Panchita the miniature spotted donkey to Iceman a registered paint and pinto horse, an equine team as diverse as RSTH’s clients.  And while RSTH always needs funds to help care for their valued team members, they also need help spreading the word.

“Our clients come, and they stay,” said Heather. “We hate to turn people away, because we know the health benefits of therapeutic horsemanship, and the value it brings to our community – plus, the value of belonging to something.  Our clients tell us ‘I belong to Team Reining Strength – They are my barn family.’  You bet we are.’”

Reining Strength Therapeutic Horsemanship is located at 7126 FM 359 in Richmond. For more information, visit www.ReiningStrength.org or to volunteer, e-mail volunteer@ReiningStrength.org.


Each Derby Day in May, Reining Strength does what all horse lovers do – throws a Derby Day party!

The organization’s only fundraising event, the annual party features all things Derby:  a ladies’ hat contest, a men’s boots and bowties contest, a simulcast of the Kentucky Derby, mint juleps, a Derby-sized silent auction, a live auction, a horse game, dinner, a wine and whiskey pull and much, much more!

Don your Derby best and spend the afternoon cheering on your fan fav all while supporting Reining Strength.  Sponsorships range from $500 to $7,500 and tickets are $125.  For this year’s Derby Day details and sponsorship opportunities, visit: www.ReiningStrength.org/derby-day