New home a blessing for Stir-N-Up Hope

Photos by Marlena Sloss/The Herald
Stir-N-Up Hope's founder, program director and president Kelly Epperson petted Ronnie the horse at the organization's new indoor arena in Santa Claus on Saturday. Epperson and board member Alison Treat spent the afternoon cleaning the space for their opening.


FERDINAND — When the news came in, Stir-n-Up Hope Therapeutic Riding Instructor Mary Sampson felt so excited she “didn’t know whether to jump up and down and scream or go throw up.” A donor had come forward. Stir-n-Up Hope would get the indoor horse arena and barn the staff had been praying for.

“This is like the Barbie dream house for horses,” Sampson said during a facilities tour Wednesday at the barn off Highway 162 near Holiday World (the facility has a Ferdinand address). “This really is a blessing from the Lord.”

Founded by Kelly and Tommy Epperson 16 years ago, Stir-n-Up Hope is a faith-based, volunteer-run nonprofit that offers therapeutic riding to people with disabilities. The organization previously operated at an outdoor arena and trails near Chrisney. Weather often led to canceled classes, and the uneven outdoor terrain limited what instructors could do with clients due to balance issues. The group prayed for an indoor facility that would allow them to keep consistent schedules and possibly expand their programming. A few months ago, their prayers were answered.

“The consistency and not having to cancel due to weather is the most exciting thing,” Kelly said.

The Eppersons started Stir-n-Up Hope to help their friend, Andrea Hayes. Hayes’ daughter, Hannah, had birth complications, and the doctors suggested horseback riding to help with Hannah’s balance. At the time, Kelly wasn’t familiar with horses, but she got the training anyway. She and Tommy then started the program at their home. When the program grew, the organization rented space near Chrisney from Keith and Betsy Wilkinson.

Epperson cleaned the observation room window at the organization's new indoor arena in Santa Claus on Saturday.

“The Lord just kind of opened the door,” Kelly said.

Horseback riding and therapeutic riding programs help people with disabilities in a variety of ways, Kelly said. Riding a horse moves the leg and back muscles in the same way walking does, helping people with mobility issues gain strength in those muscles. Grooming the horse hones fine motor skills. Building a relationship with the volunteers and the horse helps people with social or cognitive disabilities learn to interact and build confidence. Sometimes, working with horses leads nonverbal clients to speak and clients to sit up on their own after years of lying down.

Sampson and fellow instructor Peggy Coomer recalled several times parents have told them that their child probably wouldn’t talk, only to hear their child giving the horse commands during class. In one extreme case, Coomer remembered working with a client for 16 years before they uttered a single word.

“Then you’re like, ‘Oh my God. That’s why we’ve been working for 16 years,’” Coomer said. “It’s amazing.”

The duo remembered another extreme case where a young man went from not being able to sit up on his own and having to be carried around in a sling to being able to sit up in the car and puppet walk, which is when someone holds onto the client’s hands while they take steps. The transition took about three years.

“We’ve seen a lot physically, mentally and emotionally,” Sampson said.

Alison Treat of Ferdinand and her son, Ian, dusted at Stir-N-Up Hope's new indoor arena in Santa Claus on Saturday.

Between the two of them, Sampson and Coomer have almost 30 years of experience with Stir-n-Up Hope.

At Stir-N-Up Hope, the therapy comes with an added element of faith. Each lesson begins with an optional prayer, and Bible verses are incorporated into the lessons, which teach healthy relationships. From there, it’s up to the clients and volunteers if they wish to further discuss God and the Bible. A lot of times, Kelly said, discussions pop up.

“We’ve been surprised at the hunger for more,” she said.

Indeed, God is at the core of Stir-N-Up Hope and is ever present, but the organization’s work focuses on therapy, not evangelism.

“We don’t force it; we introduce it and offer it,” Kelly said. “We want to share what our hope is in.”

Alison Treat has seen the benefits of Stir-N-Up Hope’s therapy firsthand. Her daughter, Alexa, 21, has high-functioning autism and began therapeutic riding 12 years ago. When Alexa began therapy, she had trouble opening a soda can. Now, she can groom and put tack on a horse. She can also perform three- to four-step processes that would have been difficult in the past. The organization also helped Alexa participate in horse activities at the 4-H fair in high school. Today, both Alexa and Alison volunteer with the program, and Alexa hopes to become an instructor.

“I made a family and friends with them, and she did, too,” Alison said. “...We’re going to be with them for always.”

“This is like the Barbie dream house for horses,” Sampson said during a facilities tour Wednesday.

As the Stir-N-Up Hope staff settles into the new space, they hope to offer more programs. The growth, however, will mean a greater need for volunteers. Right now, the organization needs volunteers to lead horses and walk along at the riders’ sides to make sure they don’t fall during classes. Those interested in volunteering can contact Alison Treat at 812-827-6033 or by email at

The staff still has work to do on the facility to make it fully accessible before their classes begin in April, but they’re confident they can get it done. It just might be like living in a house you’re working on for a while, Sampson said. But they’re all OK with that. They’re just ecstatic to have their dream facility.

“We knew it was going to take a financial miracle,” Kelly said. “And (God) provided the donors.”

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