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  • November 05, 2014
Sometimes, inspiration comes from the unlikeliest of places.

Joy O’Neal turned a love of horses into a equine-therapy organization called The Red Barn.

Photos courtesy of The Red Barn

Sometimes, inspiration comes from the unlikeliest of places.

Joy O'Neal at the barn with Red Flight.Joy O'Neal at the barn with Red Flight.That was certainly the case for Joy O’Neal, a 1989 graduate in History from the College of Arts and Sciences, who found herself touring a small horse farm in Leeds, Alabama, back in 1999. O’Neal, who had five children in her blended family with husband Emmet, was looking for something for the his-and-hers brood to do together, and asked her friend and longtime horsewoman Anita Cowart to offer her advice on the land.

O’Neal knew that Cowart had lost her daughter, Love, in a tragic accident back in the 1960s. She even knew the story of how Cowart had found a quiet spot by the Little Cahaba River to seek guidance on how to move forward after the death of her child. But it wasn’t until the two women walked the property that O’Neal realized that this farm was exactly where Cowart had sought solace so many years before. “When she got here, she said, ‘This is it!’ O’Neal recalls. “So I just turned to Emmet and said, ‘We’ve got to get it.’”

The O’Neals used the farm for many years until their children grew up and left for college. In 2009, O’Neal wondered what would come next for her—and for the land. “I thought, ‘What about me? What am I going to do with my life? I’m not a room mother anymore, so what can I do?’” she says.

A return to the College of Arts and Sciences for an M.P.A. in non-profit management helped establish the answer to those questions. O’Neal wanted to share her love for the property, for children, and for Mrs. Cowart with an equine-therapy organization dedicated to supporting children and adults with physical, cognitive and emotional disabilities, as well as those who were at-risk, disadvantaged, or with special circumstances. She founded The Red Barn in 2012, and today it has 14 horses and a staff of therapists, counselors, and stable hands who see roughly 100 children each week. O’Neal also has dozens of volunteers who help her run the programs and camps that support her vulnerable clients.

Volunteers with Red Barn clients.Volunteers with Red Barn clients.Through her four programs, Saddle Up (therapeutic riding lessons for children with disabilities or from special circumstances), Horse Play (inclusive educational activities for children with or without disabilities), Spirit of Hope (counseling and relationship support), and Take the Reins (serving active or inactive military personnel), O’Neal has found a way to integrate horses and people in ways that benefit every creature involved. “We see all kinds of kids. Kids who have cognitive challenges, kids who were abused, kids with eating disorders, kids whose parents are dying or suffering from addictions. These are things you can’t necessarily see from the outside. And we have horses who need to be desensitized or rehabilitated, too. It allows us to say to the kids, ‘We all have something wrong with us,’” she explains.

O’Neal says her UAB connections have served her well as she’s grown her organization. From the flexibility of the class schedule when she was an undergraduate with a full-time job to the chance to go back for a graduate degree after she raised her own children, UAB fit her needs at each stage of her life. And now she is benefitting from occupational therapy students from the School of Health Professions, who designed the sensory trails that the children ride throughout the property. “I love UAB,” she says. “We have so many connections with the university, which I think is wonderful, because this is really a practical application of a UAB education. For our students and interns, it lets them see how their skills can really be used.”

Filled with ideas on how to further expand The Red Barn, O’Neal just marvels at her journey. “Never in a million years did I think I would be doing this,” she laughs. “I never even touched a horse until I was 30. God has an amazing sense of humor.”