Animal Farm

Southport Ranch to offer special needs therapy in a petting zoo

By Stephanie Dolan

For the last couple of years, the Southport Ranch has been operating as a petting zoo where kids and adults can also take riding lessons and volunteer to take time to care for the horses in residence.

“Years ago, my oldest son was into horses, and I used to help him with them,” Southport Ranch owner Sharon Harris said. “I said one day I was going to get a horse myself. About seven years ago, that’s what I did. I’d been to a few boarding facilities, and I wanted a place of my own. I was in trucking. I wanted to move forward with the idea of a ranch a few years ago, but it was difficult to juggle trucking and the barn.”

Harris said that the offering of riding lessons came before the petting zoo.

At 60, Harris now runs Southport Ranch full time, and is looking to expand her menu of services to include therapeutic experiences for children with special needs. Many other facilities offer equine therapy in an attempt to better the lives of those with special needs.

Southport Ranch will be starting equine therapy soon. (Photos by Angela Norris)

Therapeutic venture

Traditionally, equine-assisted therapy comes in many forms and can include physical therapy, occupational therapy and psychotherapy. Therapeutic riding utilizes a team of professionals that includes a certified therapeutic riding instructor and two or more volunteers to assist an individual with their ride. Hippotherapy can involve an occupational therapist, a physiotherapist or a speech and language therapist. Movements made by the horse present challenges to the rider and inspires a myriad of different postural responses. Equine-assisted psychotherapy may not involve riding at all, but could include grooming, feeding and an assortment of different exercises.

But Harris is hoping to include all of her animals in this therapeutic venture.

“I try to include all animals into what would make a child or person feel better,” she said. “We have rabbits, sheep, pigs, goats, donkeys, bearded dragons, chickens, a rooster, emus and horses.”

Harris said that the proposed therapeutic experiences are going to be more structured and framed around each individual child.

“I’m trying to make it all-inclusive so that the child and their siblings can interact together,” she said. “A lot of families want days that allows them to go somewhere and be able to experience an activity together.”

Lea Norris cuddles with a new friend.

For instance, Harris spoke of a little boy with cerebral palsy who came in to ride. His sister and mother were with him, and his sister was terrified of horses. But once she saw her brother ride, she was determined to get on a horse herself.

“It’s very important that siblings do things together,” she added. “I’m trying to give what seems to be needed the most, and that’s the family atmosphere.”

Currently, Harris is trying to raise money for therapeutic needs, such as specialized saddles.

Therapeutic differences

“I see the difference,” she said. “It makes me feel good that I can be a part of bringing a young child or an adult out of their shell and into their full potential.”

Six-year-old Eliza Johnson has been taking riding lessons for about a year at Southport Ranch.

“She loves going to Miss Sharon’s ranch for riding lessons,” Eliza’s mother, Starla, said. “She spends a lot of time with Miss Sharon too. She’s taught Eliza how to clean the horse’s hooves and feed the horse and brush the horse as well as riding. Miss Sharon also takes time out of her day to walk with her to see the animals in the petting zoo.”

Sharon Harris shows Nate Norris how to
hold a chicken as Nate’s sister, Lea, looks on.

The Johnsons live in River Run subdivision, just a few minutes away from the ranch.

“Eliza had started asking about horseback riding prior to seeing the horses on the ranch,” Starla continued. “So when we saw the sign, we gave Sharon a call and enrolled her. It’s kind of a hidden secret. Sharon also does parties there. Eliza asked to do her sixth birthday there, and we did that. We were able to use the indoor area and the petting zoo. The kids got to ride horses and go sledding. We also had a bonfire.”

Johnson said she thought it very beneficial to the community to have a staple like Southport Ranch.

“It gives Eliza an outlet to learn about animals in a city setting,” she said. “It’s nice for her to have an opportunity to learn about the animals and spend time. Miss Sharon has become a role model for Eliza.”

“My favorite horse is named Diva,” Eliza said.

“It used to be Sandy, but she’s moved on to horses that can move faster now,” Starla said. “As she’s progressed, she’s learned to ride horses with different skills.”

Sharon with her son, Teddy.

Now, every Saturday, the Johnsons visit Southport Ranch.

“Her very favorite animal on the ranch is Pedro the donkey,” Starla said. “The entire staff is very professional and friendly and helpful, and we’ve really enjoyed working with Miss Sharon. She’s been great.”

Therapeutic future

“On April 6 we’re going to have a fundraiser to let people know we’re here, what we’re doing and what we’re trying to achieve,” Harris said. “You don’t have to go a long way. We try to be accommodating to everyone. I don’t visualize doing anything else other than this and I’ve been in trucking for 22 years. The thought of not doing it is very disheartening. We try to be a safe facility. Sometimes I feel like I go a little overboard, but we try to be safe for everyone who comes here.”

Southport Ranch is located at 3605 W. Southport Road, Indianapolis. They’re open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday and noon to 7 p.m. Saturdays. Admission to the petting zoo is $8, and pony rides are $3. Horseback riding lessons are $25 for a half hour and $45 for an hour. Discounts are offered for multiple immediate family members. Southport Ranch also offers a traveling petting zoo. For more information, call (317) 246-9103 or find them on Facebook at facebook.com/southportranch.

Charles, Nate, Lea and Molly Norris of Beech Grove visit with one of the horses.

5 Questions with Sharon Harris

Who or what inspires you?

As far as what I’m doing now it’s a gentleman who passed away a year ago. I purchased my first horse from him – his name was Dave Coffey. I knew him for five or six years. He loved horses. He taught me so much. He always shared his horses with young children and they were in shows. I felt like I didn’t have enough time with him as far as his wealth of knowledge and experience.

What is your favorite horse-themed movie?

Secretariat – that was a good movie. It’s true and I loved it.

Historically, what is your favorite horse?

Secretariat

What are your favorite animals in the petting zoo?

The kid goats. They are ballerinas. They’re escape artists, unfortunately. I’ve seen the difference when people get around them, and it’s just amazing.

Do you consider yourself a feminist?

No, not really.