A life-long love of horses, a degree in special education and a heart to serve the special needs community was the trifecta that inspired today’s FACE of Memphis to create an equine therapy program that is changing lives. Courtney Smith is the Co-Founder and Chairman of the Board of Southern Reins Center for Equine Therapy. Through various equine therapy programs, Southern Reins empowers, inspires and nurtures individuals with physical, cognitive and emotional disabilities. We are delighted to introduce you to today’s FACE of Memphis, Courtney Smith.
Where were you born and what was your upbringing like?
I was born in Nashville, TN, but was brought up in Brentwood. At that time, Brentwood was a small town outside of Nashville where you knew all of your neighbors and could walk to school. The dirt road I used to ride my bike on to get to Maryland Farms is now a four-lane road running through the heart of the Brentwood business community. I discovered my love for horses while attending Oak Hill Elementary School, where there was horse barn on the property. At the age of 7, I began taking riding lessons after school and soon began competing in hunter jumper competitions. While I did play basketball, run track and do other typical teenage activities, my main focus was on traveling for competitions with my horses.
What is Southern Reins?
Southern Reins is a Center for Equine Therapy serving individuals with physical, cognitive and emotional disabilities and hardships by providing equine activities. Our many therapeutic riding programs empower, inspire, nurture and strengthen our participants. Southern Reins participants range from 2 years old to 73 years old, and our program supports individuals with disabilities such as Down syndrome, autism, multiple sclerosis, traumatic brain injury, cerebral palsy, amputation, mental and physical disabilities, attention deficit disorder and more. Southern Reins has formed program partnerships with SRVS, the Baddour Center, Alpha Omega Veterans Services, the Exceptional Foundation, Trezevant Manor, the Memphis VA Medical Center and Behavioral Services of the Mid-South.
How did you and your partners come up with idea for Southern Reins?
While in graduate school in Knoxville working on my master’s in Special Education, I volunteered at STAR, an equine therapy program. One day I was working as a horse leader with a child with autism who was nonverbal. After working with the horse, the child began speaking for the first time. Having spent a multitude of hours in various therapy settings, I was in awe of the results these horses were having with individuals with disabilities. In that moment, I felt that I had found my calling. Combining my love of horses with my heart to serve the special needs community seemed to marry my two greatest passions in life.
But, it was a long road for me to get from the young graduate student in Knoxville to the Chairman of the Board of Southern Reins. Southern Reins Center for Equine Therapy was my third attempt to start an equine therapy program in Memphis. I originally started a program called Reins of Hope 18 years ago. Then 10 years later, I met Bridget Trenary. We became fast friends and shared the same passion to create an equine program to serve our community. We collaborated to start a program called REINS at Shelby Farms. Unfortunately, Reins of Hope and REINS at Shelby Farms struggled with challenges to become operational as many new nonprofits do.
Fortuitously, about four years ago, my life-long friend, Ginna Maxwell Rauls called me and said, “It’s time.” She and I grew up riding horses together, and we both had a huge heart for serving individuals with special needs in our community. Timing was one of the biggest challenges for the previous programs, and with Ginna, Bridget, as well as our friend Kirby Floyd’s help, we knew that the time was right. We began Southern Reins in the fall of 2015 with 12 participants, and now we serve a growing number of 108 participants.
Why do you love to ride horses?
One of the main reasons I enjoy riding is the connection with the horse. There is no other experience that can compare to horseback riding. While we know that there are many physical benefits to riding, the psychological ones are the greatest to me.
What is the most rewarding part of being involved with Southern Reins?
The results. We see significant improvements in our participants daily. Our therapists and instructors have witnessed a child who was not able to walk without support achieve independent walking after only two weeks of hippotherapy. Another child demonstrated such aggressive behavior we were concerned if therapeutic riding could be done safely. This participant found complete peace on the horse, and his positive behavior has transferred to other settings as well. It is not just the participants who benefit from Southern Reins – our volunteers, instructors and parents do as well. We at Southern Reins see results in all areas: physical, emotional and cognitive. That is my reward.
You have been busy planning a big party. Tell us about the Jockeys & Juleps Derby Party.
The Jockeys & Juleps Derby Party is Southern Reins’ largest fundraiser of the year. Jockeys & Juleps is all about big hats, bourbon and live bluegrass music — with a live broadcast of the Kentucky Derby. This annual party has sold out for the past two years with over 1,000 people attending. We are thrilled to be hosting this year’s event on May 5, 2018, at our new farm in the heart of Memphis horse country, Collierville, TN.
You are also a big supporter of Memphis. Tell us about a few of the other organizations that are dear to your heart.
My family supports many organizations in our community. The Boys & Girls Club, Young Life, Le Bonheur, Carnival Memphis, Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, the Dixon Gallery and Gardens, the Orpheum and St. Jude Children’s Hospital are a few of them.
Describe your typical day.
There is really nothing typical about any of my days other than being a mother and a wife. Each day is unpredictable and brings new challenges.
Why have you chosen Memphis as your home?
Memphis chose me. I married my brother’s best friend, who just so happens to be a Memphis boy.
You are a busy mom — any advice on finding balance in your work and family life?
I would say daily prayer and meditation to help center your day.
What do you do to relax?
We recently purchased a house at Horseshoe Lake. It has been a heaven-send to our family. The close proximity allows us to get away on a moment’s notice. As soon as we reach the Arkansas bridge, we all feel our shoulders relax. It is truly beautiful there, and you feel like you are a hundred miles away from it all.
What is the first place you take out-of-towners when they visit you?
Graceland, the Rendezvous and a Grizzlies playoff game.
What is something people might be surprised to know about you?
I am Greek!
If you could go back 20 years, what advice would you give yourself?
It is all in God’s timing.
With the exception of faith, family and friends, what are three things you can’t live without?
Running shoes, grande Americano and my tennis racquet.
Thank you, Courtney! To learn more about Courtney’s work with Southern Reins Center of Equine Therapy, visit www.southernreins.org. And don’t miss Southern Reins’ annual fundraiser, Jockey & Juleps Derby Party, on May 5, 2018. To learn more or purchase your tickets, visit www.southernreins.org/2018-jockeys-and-juleps.
And thank you to Mary Kate Steele for these beautiful photos.
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