Free Rein Center Reopens, Riders Return For Lessons


Last updated 10/26/2020 at 4:24pm

Volunteer Lorraine Rourke, as horse leader, guides Kei on Mr. Pumpkin during a lesson in September. (Courtesy Photos)

When health and government officials announced permission to return to more normal social activities in August, Free Rein Center began to saddle up and get going again at Rockbrook camp's equestrian center.

With most participants being autoimmune compromised, the plan was to reopen slowly in three phases, taking measures to ensure all health guidelines were followed, keeping as a top priority the health and wellness of everyone on site.

In Phase One of reopening the week of Sept. 14, Free Rein offered two lessons a day, with a maximum of two students per lesson, for a total of 14 students. Phase One was for independent participants with the lowest volunteer need, requiring only a horse leader and no side walker.

Before entering Rockbrook's facility, participants, staff and volunteers had to undergo health screenings and temperature checks at a check-in table. Masks were required for everyone. Only horse leaders were permitted in the barn to groom and tack horses, a big change from before COVID-19 procedures. Grooming had been a key aspect and crucial part of lessons as it is how the horse/human connection is established.

The same volunteers remained for the two lessons each day to minimize the amount of foot traffic on and off the property. After every lesson, all commonly touched surfaces, saddle covers and props were cleaned and sanitized before being used again. Everyone promptly left after his scheduled time to allow for proper sanitation.

As lessons progressed, health concerns and risks for participants, staff and volunteers were closely monitored to determine further phase progression.

The week of Oct. 12, Free Rein moved to Phase Two, opening up to individuals with minimal assistance needed, with one horse leader and one side walker. If all health risks remain stable, the move to Phase Three will take place in mid-November. Phase Three involves providing lessons for participants with maximum assistance needed, one horse leader and two side walkers. The ground school program also will resume, which consists of participants who only groom.

Gala Rescheduled

Because of the continued community spread of the COVID-19 virus, the annual October fundraising gala was cancelled and has been rescheduled for Oct. 16, 2021. This year, 2020, marks the 20th anniversary of the founding of Free Rein Center. That important achievement will be celebrated during the 2021 gala.

Changes In Staff

Summer brought changes in both the equine and human staff.

Rachel Evans, an instructor with Free Rein since 2015, left in September to become a therapeutic riding instructor with Shining Hope Farms in Charlotte. Brittany McCathern continues as Free Rein's program director and instructor.

One of Free Rein's longtime equine therapists retired in September to Sugarbrush Farm on See Off Mountain. Cassie had been with Free Rein since 2013 and had shown her dedication to students by participating in countless lessons for the last seven years.

The afternoon of Oct. 2 also marked the end of an era at Camp Rockbrook with the passing of Danny, the last of the Connemara herd that came to Rockbrook nearly 28 years ago. Danny was 4 when the owners of Camp High Rocks and Camp Rockbrook received word that a Connemara farm in Georgia had too many ponies and wanted to start over with a smaller herd. The camp owners drove to the farm and purchased 30 ponies, 15 for each camp. The ponies arrived at Cedar Mountain in big trucks on a dark, rainy night. For years, Danny and his buddies Annie, Lacey and Buddy taught little girls at Rockbrook how to ride. Lacey and Buddy passed over the Rainbow Bridge in March 2019. Annie died a year earlier.

Free Rein Center serves youths and adults facing physical, emotional and cognitive challenges in Transylvania, Henderson, and Buncombe counties by offering supervised riding instruction and groundwork with horses. Its programs and activities recognize the therapeutic benefits of the horse-human connection. It is a certified member center through PATH International (Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship).

For more information about Free Rein Center and any of its programs, including the HEROS adoption program, call (828)-883-3375 or visit the Free Rein Center website at

Taylor wears a mask as he greets Ayla before a lesson.


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