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.”

Horse Business

Listen to our podcast episode for more of our interview with Chelsea Harden.

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.”

Read Full Transcript

Chelsea Harden – The H.E.A.R.T Center – Phoenix, AZ

SOT: OK, ready? Take me there. I love how you looked first.

Chelsea: For a child with special needs it’s not easy. They need to be in an environment that is accepting of them and that is receptive to their way of learning. Learning how to count, learning how to identify facial expressions,

SOT: I’m proud of you for sitting up so tall.

Chelsea: Something as simple as that is not going to be as easily transferable for them as it might be if they’re learning it on the scene.

TEXT: Chelsea Harden – Founder + CEO - The H.E.A.R.T Center – Phoenix, Ariz. USA

Chelsea: HEART stands for Harden Education and Recreation Therapy center. The Center is really about using horses as a modality to encourage individuals with disabilities and special needs, to find something that makes them feel empowered, and happy, and gives them a purpose.

TEXT: Chelsea grew up in southern California and loved horses from an early age.

Chelsea: I started riding when I turned nine. And in high school I had come across a therapeutic riding program, I got involved as a volunteer on the weekends. I was able to spend all morning working with the instructors and the kids and then in the afternoons we would pack a lunch and we’d go on a trail ride and enjoy riding for fun.

TEXT: In 2007, Chelsea moved to Phoenix to study journalism at Arizona State University.

Chelsea: I was really missing the horses and the kids and then I found the recreation therapy program. And as soon as I walked into my advisor’s office I was like, “Well, I know I’m home. [CHUCKLES] I don’t ever have to go anywhere else. This is what I’m meant to be doing.” [CHUCKLES]

TEXT: In addition to her classes, Chelsea began working at a therapeutic riding program associated with Arizona State.

Chelsea: I got to learn a lot about the horse world and the therapy world, coaching and counseling, and… team building. It was great. I was able to apply practical application to everything that I was learning in school.

TEXT: Chelsea graduated in 2012. Two years later she married her college boyfriend, Bill Harden.
After 7 years of working in the field, she felt ready to start the H.E.A.R.T Center.

Chelsea: It was time for me to go out on my own and I really wanted to grow this into more of a school type environment that will allow us to run a variety of support programs like occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech therapy.

TEXT: Chelsea raised start-up funds from former clients.

Chelsea: The biggest challenge for me was learning the aspects of business structure and growth. I understand and can assist in all of the business aspects but I know that my strengths lie in the arena. And that’s where my focuses are. So, right now it’s been Bill my husband who’s been managing the, the day-to-day aspects of making sure that, you know, that the lights stay on [CHUCKLES], and that the horses are fed, and that everybody’s paid.

TEXT: Chelsea now has 4 horses and several volunteers.
They work with 40-50 students a week, children with Down’s Syndrome, autism and physical disabilities.

Chelsea: Horses are great for teaching a lot of the basic emotional coping skills. Students are able to try new things with the horses such as getting their horse to go whether it’s walk, or trot, or turn, or complete a course or a pattern, whatever that might be, they go through a whole series of emotions [CHUCKLES] and the work that we do to process that then allows them to transfer those emotional skills, such as being able to go into school and feeling what their body feels like when it’s frustrated and noticing that my fists clench, or I get shivery, and they can then express it to a teacher and say, “Hey, I need a break or I might throw this chair.” [CHUCKLES].

TEXT: In 2016, HEART’s second year, annual revenue was $90,000. Chelsea is actively looking to hire her first full-time instructor.

Chelsea: I love how much I learn from all of the, the students and the people that I interact with and it just taught me so much about what it means to communicate from the heart and communicate through intention and patience.

SOT: Alena: Four, Five
Chelsea: That was such great talking, Alena. I love hearing your voice.

Chelsea: It keeps me very fulfilled and, and I feel like this is my purpose and this is what I’m supposed to be doing and I couldn’t imagine doing anything else [CHUCKLES].