Chelsea Harden is using an unusual business asset — horses — to create magical spaces where kids with special needs can connect and learn. Listen to her story about starting and growing The H.E.A.R.T. Center and offering therapeutic riding lessons to children with physical, emotional and behavioral challenges.

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Episode 22: Horse Business

You’re listening to Good on the Ground from The Story Exchange
CHELSEA: So The H.E.A.R.T. Center began at the end of 2014 primarily as a therapeutic horseback riding program.

COLLEEN: I'm Colleen DeBaise

SUE: And I'm Sue Williams

COLLEEN: Most entrepreneurs that we interview for this podcast do NOT need live animals to start their businesses

SUE: No, we really don't get a lot of those.

COLLEEN: Today is an exception.

SUE: For this "Good on the Ground" podcast, we head to a horse ranch in Arizona…

CHELSEA: My name is Chelsea Harden and my organization is The H.E.A.R.T. Center

COLLEEN: To speak with an entrepreneur who is finding new ways to reach kids with special needs.

SUE: If you like listening to stories about people willing to take on risk and to really try to create positive change in this world, then keep on listening.


CHELSEA: So Asher is 14 and he has been riding with us for about a year and a half now. And he is autistic.

SOT (of Chelsea): Ok, ready, take me there...I love how you looked first.

CHELSEA For a child with special needs it’s not that easy. They need to be in an environment that is accepting of them and that is receptive to their, to their way of learning.

SOT (of Chelsea): I'm proud of you for sitting up so tall.

COLLEEN: Our story begins when Chelsea herself was a young you might imagine, she's a horse lover.

CHELSEA So I started riding about when I turned nine.

SUE: She's from Los Angeles originally -- her mom signed her up for classes through a group called the California Rangers.

CHELSEA: They are an organization that was basically set up as a, almost a militant-style drill team for youth that are interested in being involved with horses

COLLEEN: In high school she came across a therapeutic riding program.

CHELSEA: So I got involved as a volunteer. I was able to spend time with the horses. I was able to spend all morning working with the instructors and the kids over at that program.

SUE: After graduation in 2007, Chelsea headed to Arizona State University… study broadcasting and public speaking

CHELSEA: I was just ready for something different

SUE: But after a while…

COLLEEN: Chelsea began realizing…

CHELSEA: ... that being away from the horses and away from the kids was something that I felt that I was really missing in my life

SUE: Her new sorority sisters mentioned that Arizona State's downtown campus had a parks and recreation management program…

CHELSEA: And through that 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.I don’t ever have to go anywhere else. This is what I’m meant to be doing.”

COLLEEN: Let's take a moment here to talk about what recreation therapy is…

SUE: Yes, it's a relatively new field.

COLLEEN: The idea is that you use recreation to help individuals who might have illnesses or disabling conditions or behavioral problems.

SUE: Exactly. And it doesn't have to be horses -- it can be art or music or dance...

COLLEEN: ...anything recreational.

SUE: Yes. The thinking is that this type of therapy fosters confidence or independence...and improves physical health. It's a growing field.

COLLEEN: I'll share these stats from the Labor Department: Employment in recreational therapy is projected to grow 12% from 2014 to 2024, faster than the average occupation.

SUE: Retiring baby boomers are expected to need recreational therapists, either to treat age-related illnesses or to maintain an active lifestyle.

COLLEEN: Like, water aerobics for instance.

SUE: Exactly.

COLLEEN: So let's get back to Chelsea -- her particular expertise within recreational therapy is with horses, and kids with special needs.

CHELSEA: A lot of our students, especially some of our high functioning students that are on the spectrum, do not do well in a normal classroom environment. Sitting down at a chair and a desk all day and being talked at is not conducive to the way most of our clientele learn.

SUE: While pursuing her bachelor's degree in the field...

CHELSEA: I was introduced to a woman who was the founder of a therapeutic riding organization called Hunkapi Programs.

SUE: Her name is Terra Schaad, of Scottsdale

CHELSEA: So she kind of took me under her wing and I got to learn a lot about the horse world and the therapy world beyond just therapeutic riding but also into counseling, and coaching, and… team building, and corporate work with the horses.

COLLEEN: Chelsea spent about seven years working there

CHELSEA: I was able to apply practical application to everything that I was learning in school. I loved every second that I got to spend there

COLLEEN: By 2014, Chelsea had finished her degree and was ready to branch out...

CHELSEA: I really started to get an itch to dive more into education

SUE: She turned to her clients for startup funds

CHELSEA: I have a strong clientele base from working in this field for quite some time and it was through that that we were able to have the capital and the pieces moving forward.

SUE: And so she founded the HEART Center - the acronym stands for Harden Education and Recreation Therapy.

COLLEEN: Harden again is her last name.

CHELSEA: The H.E.A.R.T. Center is really about using horses and other types of recreation 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.


COLLEEN: We've been sharing the story of Chelsea Harden, an entrepreneur in the recreational therapy field... she now works with about 50 students a week, running a variety of programs, including a sleepaway camp.

SUE: She charges clients, which include parents and schools, for individual and group lessons.

CHELSEA: Our annual revenue in 2016 was just over $90,000 and we’re at the point now that I will be able to start taking a salary and then be able to start bringing on another employee.

COLLEEN: It's a small but growing business...and one that is truly an unusual one to launch.

SUE: Well for starters, you need horses.

COLLEEN: Not many businesses can say that. Sue, you put together our video profile of Chelsea, which
listeners can watch on our site.


COLLEEN: And you visited her horse ranch.

SUE: I did...and we should clarify that Chelsea doesn't actually own the's where she boards her horses.

CHELSEA: We found our location based off of a relationship that I have had with the woman that owns the barn and she was gracious enough to welcome us with open arms. 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.

COLLEEN: What's the location like?

SUE: It’s on the outskirts of Phoenix. When you're driving there, you pass a lot of industrial buildings, so it's quite unexpected. Then you pull down this driveway and there’s the horse ranch in the desert. There's a lot of dirt, and cactus, and of course, horses. The barn itself has riding arenas and acreage for trail rides, plus a wonderful view of the surrounding mountains.

COLLEEN: When Chelsea founded the HEART Center, she had one horse…

SUE: A mare named Karma.

CHELSEA: I started off with one and then quickly we had more clients than I was able to do with one horse so we just built it up from there

COLLEEN: She now has six horses.

SUE: Four that she owns and two that she "leases" -- these are fellow boarders at the ranch, and their owners donate their time in exchange for Chelsea caring for them.

SOT: Hi Sweets.

COLLEEN: And this is where her No. 1 business expense comes in…

SUE: Chelsea estimates that feeding and boarding each horse costs about $500-$600 a month, per horse, depending on the horse…

COLLEEN: Which adds up to about $40,000 a year

SUE: It's not cheap. She and her husband Bill -- a real estate agent who helps her with the books -- have a formula…

CHELSEA: Once we reach a certain amount of horse usage hours per, per week we know that we’re ready to add on another horse.

SUE: The horses need special lessons, too.

CHELSEA: They go through a lot of training to be able to handle different types of behaviors, or noises.

COLLEEN: It's a complicated business -- one that you really need very specific knowledge to run.

SUE: On top of her education and experience, Chelsea took part in a business incubator in Phoenix called Seed Spot, which is for social entrepreneurs...

CHELSEA: And through their full-time program I was able to really understand the pieces that went into having a successful startup The biggest challenge for me was learning the aspects of business structure and growth.

SUE: Chelsea’s the first to admit that she's better with the horses and kids than numbers.

CHELSEA: I understand and can assist in all of the business aspects but I know that my strengths lie within the arena and that’s where my focuses are.

SUE: Husband Bill manages the day-to-day aspects...

CHELSEA: ..of making sure that, you know, that the lights stay on [CHUCKLES], and that the horses are fed, and that everybody’s paid.


CHELSEA For me the time that it really clicked that I was never going to leave this field was when I first got to work with a little girl named Lexi.

COLLEEN: One more thing you need to run a social enterprise like the HEART Center: A deep desire to help kids with special needs.

CHELSEA: And she was eight and a half at the time and she was nonverbal and diagnosed with autism and cerebral palsy and she was just a ball of energy and light coming into the barn.

COLLEEN: Lexi had never been around horses.

CHELSEA: And then she touched the horse with one finger and ran away clapping and giggling to herself, and then came back and we went to two fingers, and then three, and then four, and then a whole hand. And from there we just took it in baby steps and we worked together to be able to get her on the horse and riding.

COLLEEN: Lexi still comes out and rides.

SUE: When we were filming our video there, we got to watch Chelsea work with the children. You really have to see her with the kids and the horses to understand how powerful this work is. One teenage boy with high functioning autism would not get out of the car when he arrived. He was extremely upset and almost howling because the noise of a huge tractor trailer had disturbed him as they were coming up the drive. Chelsea tried to soothe him and calm him but nothing worked. After about 10 minutes she went to get his horse. She brought the horse to the car window and just stood there with him. And the boy saw the horse and calmed down. And he got out of the car and went for his riding lesson.

SOT: What do we do first we have to turn through the... Cone. Yes. Sit up tall and strong. Ready. Set. Go. Good. Eyes up. Kick. Kick.
Sue: A good lesson. It was quite honestly amazing.

SOT: What color are you feeling right now. Yellow. Can you tell me what yellow means...oh you’re getting to be happy. Pretty cool, ok...

CHELSEA: A very common scenario for us is I’ll get a phone call from a parent who has a child who’s just not, not engaging in school, and who has some outbursts with frustration and behaviors at school.

COLLEEN: Chelsea invites them to come in, and she watches how the child interacts with the horses...

CHELSEA: We do an assessment with them with the horses and we’ll start to work on activities that work on emotional control and management.

COLLEEN: In the coming years, Chelsea hopes to expand well beyond therapeutic riding.

CHELSEA: 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 like occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech therapy.

SUE: And she recently became a 501c3 nonprofit, which will make her eligible for grants and charitable donations.

CHELSEA: I have a very good idea of where we’re headed, and what we’re doing, and the goals that we’re after.

COLLEEN: She hopes to be able to one day serve 100 to 200 students a week….

CHELSEA: ...not just with me or with the horses but through the myriad of resources and activities that we’re gonna be offering.


SUE: Meanwhile, Chelsea’s enjoying the rewards of her work…

CHELSEA: I love how much I learn from all of the, the students and the people that I interact with and it just, it keeps, it keeps me very fulfilled, 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.

COLLEEN: We thank Chelsea Harden for sharing her story with us.

SUE: Join us next time to hear more stories about innovative and inspirational women doing the things you’d never dream of. Or….maybe you would. This has been The Story Exchange.

COLLEEN: If you liked this podcast, please post a review on iTunes. It helps other people find the show. And visit our website at, where you’ll find news, videos and tips for women entrepreneurs. Sound editing provided by Nusha Balyan. Interview recorded by Kevin Cloutier. Executive producers are Sue Williams and Victoria Wang.