Gus-Gus stamps the ground gently, his ears perking upward and his eyes shining with excitement.

A social creature by nature and nearly 1,000 pounds of lovable strength, company is what this horse lives for each day. And like all the horses that inhabit the stables of HOPE Horses, spending time with their human friends is a day-long pleasure.

From the grooming, talking, riding and games, this is a family of hope, mutual benefit and lasting relationships.

The horses all have unique personalities, just like their clients who come Monday through Friday for the therapeutic experience provided by the non-profit Hope Horses on Convent Road.

With 19 acres leased from the Benedictine Sisters of Cullman at Sacred Heart Monastery, Hope Horses is an elaborate system of specially-designed outdoor and indoor riding opportunities for special needs residents. The thought put into the program is carefully designed for the students, from building muscles and strengthening motor skills, to the soothing experience of grooming their horses.

And the horses, carefully selected and trained for this mission, are anxiously awaiting their friends each day.

“Horses are non-judging animals,” says Kelsey Rice, executive director of Hope Horses. “They see a student as someone who is going to love on them. Those horses have it made with all the attention and grooming they receive.”

The students of Hope Horses have a sense of ownership with each horse, Rice adds, because they are responsible for the grooming, games and relationships they build. Riding, while it has many values, is just one part of the experience.

“We’re not therapists, but the benefits are therapeutic. The horses get excited, the students say, ‘That’s my horse.’ The students learn everything about caring for a horse, and I think we all get benefits from this, from our volunteers and students to the horses.”

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David Palmer has decades of experience in the newspaper industry. He currently serves as editor of The Cullman Times.