This 6-Horse Startup Helps Kids With Special Needs

Chelsea Harden's The H.E.A.R.T. Center offers therapeutic riding lessons to children with physical, emotional and behavioral challenges.

Colleen DeBaise By Colleen DeBaise

Editor’s Note: This is part of our Good on the Ground series, profiling entrepreneurial women who are addressing social issues in innovative and inspiring ways.

Most startup entrepreneurs don’t need live animals to launch their businesses. That is not the case for Chelsea Harden, who founded The H.E.A.R.T Center in 2014 to provide educational opportunities to children with special needs.

Among Harden’s business assets are six horses, including two recent acquisitions named Pancho and Jake. She uses them for therapeutic horseback riding designed to foster confidence and independence in kids with physical, emotional or behavioral issues. Feeding and boarding the horses at a leased barn in Phoenix is Harden’s biggest business expense. She must also ensure that the creatures, like needy employees, are “happy doing the work,” she says. “They get all sorts of love and treats.”

Harden started The H.E.A.R.T. Center — the acronym stands for Harden Education and Recreation Therapy — after graduating from Arizona State University in 2012 with a degree in recreation therapy. The field, a relatively new one, involves the use of recreational activities, such as art or music, to assist individuals with social problems, illnesses and disabling conditions.

“It’s pretty special,” Harden says.

A Love of Horses Meets a Therapy Mission

In Harden’s case, the recreational focus is on horses. She herself learned to ride at age 9 in her native Los Angeles, taking classes through California Rangers, a nonprofit youth equestrian organization. While at Arizona State, she got involved with Hunkapi, a Scottsdale organization founded by Terra Schaad that provides equine-assisted psychotherapy and other horse-powered activities for children and adults. “I was able to apply practical application to everything that I was learning in school,” Harden says. “I loved every second I got to spend there.”

After 7 years at Hunkapi, Harden decided in 2014 to branch out and start The H.E.A.R.T. Center. “I have a strong clientele base from working in this field for quite some time,” she says. “Through that, we were able to have the capital [to] move forward.” She also learned about business basics by taking part in Seed Spot, a business incubator for social entrepreneurs in Phoenix.

Chelsea Harden riding lessonHarden began offering therapeutic riding lessons with her own horse, Karma, at the barn where he was boarded. The facility’s owner “was gracious enough to welcome us with open arms,” she says, “which sounds silly, but it’s very hard to find when you’re working in an industry with special-needs kids, let alone special-needs kids and horses.” 

The barn has riding arenas and acreage for trail rides, plus a view of the surrounding mountains. “When you’re driving there, there are industrial buildings, then you pull down this little driveway and it is this little desert paradise,” Harden says. “It’s nice when our clients are able to drive through the gates and know they are in a safe space.”

Related: A Mother’s Creation for Her Kid Launches a Multi-Million Dollar Business

Within a month of starting, Harden says demand was high enough that she needed to purchase a second horse. “By the end of the first year, we had to have six,” she says. While she owns four of the horses, the other two are fellow boarders at the facility. “The owners donate their time,” she says, with the condition that Harden cares for them. Monthly maintenance, which includes boarding and feeding, runs about $500 to $600 per horse — which can add up to about $40,000 a year for all six.

Deciding when to add an additional horse to the program is always a “balancing act,” Harden says. Her husband Bill, who runs a real-estate company, helps with the books. “This business model drives him nuts,” she admits.

Building an Organization With Heart

While it began life as a for-profit, The H.E.A.R.T. Center is in the process of becoming a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. Harden believes the designation will help it access grants and raise tax-deductible donations for scholarships. Still, she anticipates that revenue from tuition will continue to sustain the company. “I never wanted to be a nonprofit that relied on donations,” she says.

Harden charges clients, which include parents and schools, for individual and group lessons. She also organizes two week-long sleepaway camps in the summer, about 3 or 4 hours away at a ranch in Pinetop, Arizona. She keeps the groups small — just 15 students per camp — charging $750 per camper. In 2016, her revenue was $90,000, enough to pay herself a small salary. She also pays for three to four seasonal instructors, and relies on a group of about 20 volunteers.

In the coming years, she hopes to expand well beyond therapeutic riding. “The ultimate dream vision is to be able to acquire a ranch-style property that will allow us to run a variety of support programs, [such as] occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech therapy,” she says.

One thing Harden says she knows for sure: She’s never going to leave the field. She recalls several years ago, meeting a non-verbal 8-year-old named Lexi with autism and cerebral palsy, who was a “ball of light and energy” in the barn. “She was very nervous,” Harden says. “She touched the horse with one finger and ran away clapping and giggling to herself.” Eventually, the young girl gained enough confidence to ride independently.

“She has taught me so much about what it means to communicate from the heart,” Harden says. “This is what I’m supposed to be doing, and I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.”

Posted: June 27, 2017

Colleen DeBaiseThis 6-Horse Startup Helps Kids With Special Needs