She is a Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH Intl.) Registered Certified Instructor and lifelong horseback rider with a servant heart. Jill Haag’s love of horses is rivaled only by her desire to help her fellow man — and she does so through her position as Executive Director of Southern Reins, where she oversees the equine-assisted activities and therapies for a wide variety of people with disabilities. Activities can include mounted therapeutic riding lessons, hippotherapy (occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech language pathology), ‘Making Strides’ recreation therapy, ‘Equine Services for Heroes,’ ‘Silver Stirrups,’ ‘Unbridled Horsemanship,’ farm tours and guest visits. And they are currently gearing up for their wildly popular annual Jockeys & Juleps fundraiser. We are delighted to introduce Jill Haag as today’s FACE of Memphis.
Where are you originally from and what was your upbringing like?
I am a Virginia girl, and grew up on a horse farm in Winchester, VA. My sister and I had a lot of responsibility from a young age. We had to wake up at 5 a.m. to feed the horses, turn them out, clean stalls, then get ready for school and catch the bus at 7 a.m. After school we had volleyball, then came home to ride, do all the chores again, then homework. Horses were our life, and our parents taught us that we have to work hard for the things we want.
What came first, your love of horses or your passion for nonprofits?
My love of horses started when I was 5 years old. I remember my grandfather sitting me on the back of one of his dairy cows — and from that moment, though it wasn’t a horse, I knew I wanted to ride! My mom had horses when she was growing up on the dairy farm, so the old saying “once a horse girl, always a horse girl” made it an easy decision for my parents to buy a farm. We had six horses by the time I was 13 years old, and from the moment we purchased our first horse, I knew how magical they were and how they could change your life in such a meaningful way.
When did you realize that this would be your career path? Was there an ‘aha’ moment that clarified this as a life passion for you?
While serving as Executive Director of the We Promise Foundation in Virginia Beach, VA, our mission was to bring joy, hope and smiles to children facing medical hardship or illness. I fell in love with organizations like Make-A-Wish and Toby’s Dream Foundation, helping children with life-threatening medical conditions.
I was still riding, and the stable where I kept my horse was close to one of the largest therapeutic riding programs in the country, Equi-Kids Therapeutic Riding Program. I used to drive by their facility and think That is my dream job, because it combined the two things I loved most: horses and helping people. So, when I received a phone call from a recruiter sharing that Equi-Kids was looking for an Executive Director, I knew I had to apply. That moment has forever changed my life.
How do horses help humans?
Horses are magnificent creatures that bring out the best in us all. They are powerful, generous, forgiving and challenging — and they are keenly intuitive to humans. They provide nonverbal communication and feedback, and are always “talking to us.” Learning how to communicate with a horse can be incredibly empowering. That’s one of the things I love most about what we do, because it is unlike any other type of therapy or activity.
When was the first time you really witnessed or realized that horses have this special therapeutic gift?
The first time I witnessed this incredible bond was my first week when I began working at Equi-Kids. We had a young lady named Ivy who has Cerebral Palsy. Her high tone made it difficult to mount the horse. While the horse was in the mounting ramp, he stepped sideways toward Ivy, so he could be as close to her as possible. He stood still and quiet, dropping his head slightly as her leg swung over his crest. Once mounted, this horse, who had a typically fast pace, took slow and careful steps. For me, I knew instantly that the horse knew his job and was connected to what Ivy needed. That was the first of thousands of times I have witnessed how horses know what each unique individual needs from them.
Describe your typical day at Southern Reins.
There really isn’t a typical day at Southern Reins, which makes every day an exciting one! The one thing that is always consistent is the joy that is shared between the families whom we serve, our horses and our amazing volunteers. Memories are made at Southern Reins, and small victories become pivotal achievements for so many of our participants.
Describe one of your most rewarding moments or favorite days working at Southern Reins.
I have always had a passion for helping veterans, and am so grateful to be one of the instructors for our Equine Services for Heroes program. One of our veterans, Curt, was working with his horse, Ozzie, in the arena. Curt has some mobility challenges, and we bring his walker into the arena so he can rest throughout the session. One day Curt was very tired, so we took a break. As Curt sat down, Ozzie gently put his head in his lap, then raised his head as if to keep guard over his friend. He continued to “check on Curt” by touching his muzzle to Curt’s face, then put his head in Curt’s lap as if to say “It’s okay, I’ll rest with you, too.” The connection between Curt and Ozzie was indescribable and genuine.
Do you have a favorite horse?
If I had to select one, it would probably be Sampson. He joined the herd last summer. He is a pint-sized mini pony with a beautiful blonde mane and tail. Sampson is small, but his personality is mighty! He is kind and generous and has really become a great ambassador for our program.
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What do you do for fun when you’re not working?
I enjoy riding my sweet thoroughbred, Rhett. He is 11 years young and is an absolute saint. If I’m not at the barn, I enjoy watching my boys play lacrosse for Collierville High School — and cheering them on! Go Dragons!
What are you most proud of?
I am most proud of my two amazing boys, Jack and John. They are 18 and 15, respectively. They are good students, love lacrosse, and have a heart for service. They are considerate and hardworking, and recognize that they have to earn their way in this world, which is something any mom would be proud of.
What is something people might be surprised to learn about you?
A little-known fact is that I am an identical twin! My sister Joy and I are very close. To this day, my family still can’t tell us apart on the telephone, because our voices are exactly the same.
What is your best piece of advice?
Work hard, believe in yourself, and follow your heart — it will never let you down.
What are three light-hearted or frivolous things you can’t live without?
My 44-ounce Diet Coke (with a splash of root beer), my daily trip to the farm where I board my horse Rhett to check on him and give him a treat (after I have stopped at the store to refill my 44-ouncer!) and watching “The Incredible Dr. Pol”
To get your tickets to the 4th Annual Jockeys & Juleps Derby Party, visit southernreins.org.
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