Elegant, Historical or Outdoorsy: McKinney Offers Wedding and Reception Venues to Suit Every Couple

My story for the March 2014 issue of McKinney Magazine, published by the McKinney Chamber of Commerce. I always love doing these types of stories because the interviewees are enthusiastic about being included, and I get the bonus of visiting lots of wonderful places in the community! So fun!!

By Holly Becka, HorsePower Communications

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A wedding set in the gazebo in Katie’s Garden at the Heard-Craig Center for the Arts. Photo courtesy of Phase 3 Photography.

When you imagine your dream wedding, what do you see? A sophisticated ballroom with luxe furnishings and crystal chandeliers? A chapel with stained glass windows? Contemporary décor juxtaposed with historic brick walls? Shabby chic elegance with flowing linens and simple flowers? Or perhaps a gazebo set amid manicured lawns and towering trees?

No matter your vision, the tried-and-true wedding and reception venues in McKinney can make any couple’s nuptial dreams come true, says Vanesa Baggett, tourism services representative for the McKinney Convention and Visitors Bureau. And she should know. Part of her job involves offering free concierge services to connect couples with McKinney wedding/reception venues and hotels. Each month, she helps at least a half-dozen couples start the process of booking their wedding, reception and guest accommodations in McKinney.

“McKinney is a destination for weddings,” Baggett says. “I personally think it’s the quaintness of the town in general – our downtown is such a big seller. We have a lot of quality venues and hotels, and people love to bring their out-of-town guests downtown to shop and dine. Our population is about 150,000 but we don’t feel like a big town. We still have a warm, quaint hometown feel.”

The McKinney CVB offers a list of tried-and-true wedding and reception venues on its website, visitmckinney.com. When couples meet with Baggett, she first assesses their vision and guest needs before taking them on site visits to introduce them to events venue and hotel contacts.

“The most popular venues we seem to see are the Grand Hotel, Cotton Mill and Flour Mill [in historic downtown McKinney], Myers Park, Storybook Ranch, Chestnut Square, and the Bella Donna Chapel in Adriatica – it all depends on the bride’s vision,” Baggett says.

Myers Park and Event Center: Nature’s Beauty

If couples favor a natural setting and an outdoor wedding, they’ll want to visit Myers Park and Event Center, a public facility in north McKinney operated by Collin County that features 158 rolling acres and multiple venues. Myers Park is so popular for weddings, in fact, that only six open Saturday evenings remained available in 2014 as of mid-January. It’s no wonder that Star Community Newspaper readers voted it the best McKinney wedding venue in 2011 and 2012.

Judy Florence, Myers Park manager, encourages couples to contact her and her staff because they can still accommodate 2014 wedding parties on Fridays, Sundays and even Saturday mornings. Couples love getting married in the beautiful gazebo at Myers Park and then having their reception in the Landing, a large hall. Other popular wedding sites at Myers Park include in the perennial garden, on a small bridge surrounded by woods and in the big pole barn. A new venue, called the Amphitheatre, will be available soon, likely in May. It features Austin stone columns with a small roof and an open back that looks out into a stunning wooded area.

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A wedding at Collin County’s Myers Park and Event Center in far north McKinney. Photo courtesy of Myers Park.

Florence says couples love Myers Park’s natural beauty; the highly competitive, affordable prices with few added fees; the fact that they can choose their own caterers and vendors – or have family members provide refreshments; and the fact that those who book the gazebo and the Landing package automatically have a backup plan in the event of bad weather on their wedding day. Couples can simply get married indoors at their reception hall.

“We get a lot of rustic and natural weddings,” she says. “We have a beautiful grassy area with trees as the background, and the brides show a lot of creativity. Some of the brides have come in by horse and carriage, in a Rolls Royce, or drive in on a four-wheeler.”

For information: Go online to myersinfo.com or the Myers Park and Event Center Facebook page or call 972-548-4792.

Grand Hotel: Refined Elegance

The Grand Hotel on the downtown McKinney square is synonymous with world-class luxury and sophistication. The beautifully restored building formerly served as McKinney’s opera house, and it’s now the definitive locale for couples dreaming of an elegant wedding and reception.

Sales Manager Melanie Kosarek says while the Grand Hotel is known for its refined splendor, couples don’t realize how reasonable its prices are. “I consider us, for the quality, service and amount of space, to be very affordable,” she says. “Everybody has a budget – we’re very conscious of that.”

Guests rave that “we make it really easy for them,” Kosarek says. “We’re a one-stop shop with a lot of amenities to offer. We offer all-inclusive fabulous service throughout your event – we take care of everything. I think our service really stands out.”

The most popular wedding and reception venue at the Grand Hotel is the 2,500-square-foot Grand Ballroom, which held 61 of the 78 weddings at the hotel in 2013 as well as numerous other events.

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The Grand Ballroom at The Grand Hotel is all decked out for a wedding reception. Photo by K and S Photography, courtesy of The Grand Hotel.

“The décor is elegant and timeless, so it goes with every bride’s style and is fully adjustable. It’s a very flexible space,” Kosarek says. There are still some 2014 dates available, she says.

One of the fun trends that the Grand Hotel has enjoyed assisting couples with is creating a signature wedding cocktail for them. Many couples are also foodies who relish having a say in their dinner presentation. Kosarek is also seeing trends with desserts in which couples choose cupcakes, pies or other non-traditional wedding cakes.

Smaller wedding parties are easily accommodated at the Grand Hotel as well. Rick’s 110 is a private dining room with its own street entrance. The inviting Wine Room features floor-to-ceiling oak wine racks, and the intimate Library seats 28 guests who dine amid recipe books from around the world.

“When you’re getting married, you want to be treated well, like you’re the only person who matters on that day – and you are,” Kosarek says. “That’s what we strive to do well.”

For information: Go online to grandhotelmckinney.com or call 214-726-9250.

The Pantry: Historic Charm

Built in 1898 and originally a hardware store, The Pantry in downtown McKinney features historic charm, original wood floors (complete with inset numbers for measuring various goods), brick walls, and exceptional pies. The Pantry is home to numerous wedding receptions, rehearsal dinners, and special events each year. There are still available 2014 dates.

Among its selling points for couples: Wedding parties get the entire building when they rent the venue; the space is fully customizable and can be transformed to feature any look; and The Pantry’s events coordinator provides wedding planning services.

“We do everything; we take care of our guests from beginning to end, and I help you coordinate everything as well,” says Kim Shumway, events coordinator at The Pantry. “I help them choose a menu that’s appropriate for their budget. I also make suggestions for everything from decor to how many guests to invite. We want the bride and groom to have a fun, stress-free experience planning their wedding. From the moment we greet them and their guests as they arrive, we want them to enjoy the party while we take care of all the details.”

Shumway says The Pantry attracts many brides who favor weddings with rustic elegance. However, it’s incredible how the vintage building can be tailored to meet any bride’s vision, she says.

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A wedding party celebrates at The Pantry. Photo by Don Sparks Photography of Frisco.

“We had one bride who tented the second floor so the first floor was draped in material; we’ve had dance floors down the center aisle; we’ve had people giving toasts from up on the second floor and brides throwing their bouquets from the loft,” she says. “It’s very versatile.”

A highly popular offering at The Pantry are the homemade pies, which couples often serve in lieu of a groom’s cake. Plus, Shumway says, “any of the pies can be made into three-inch mini tarts, and they’re adorable. We’ve had brides use them as favors. We put them in cute cello bags and each guest walks away with a bit of The Pantry.”

For information: Go online to thepantryrestaurant.net or call 972-542-2411.

Gather: Industrial-Contemporary Luxury

This beautiful restaurant and events venue celebrated its two-year anniversary in November 2013 after quickly becoming one of the hottest spots for a get-together. Gather, located in downtown McKinney, also recently earned accolades from McKinney Magazine readers as the best wedding venue in 2013.

Owner Crystal Bryant says Gather is perfect for smaller weddings, since it holds as many as 100 people. Couples who book their wedding and receptions at Gather tend to favor simple, natural elegance, she says. There are still available 2014 dates in the fall and winter.

Gather features exposed historic brick walls, hardwood floors and luxe, contemporary furnishings with crystal chandeliers, beautiful place settings and elegant linens. Couples are welcome to provide their own table-top décor or just the decorations for a sign-in table.

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A wedding party at Gather in downtown McKinney. Photo courtesy of Gather.

“Because of everything we offer, people like that they have to do minimal decorating,” Bryant says. “It’s not an empty ballroom – we have created a beautiful space. We saw a lot of people using succulents, a lot of moss, and a lot of greenery last fall. Very elegant, simple and classic. We get a lot of candles in our venue. Some venues don’t allow real flames, but we do.”

The wedding parties at Gather feature sit-down dinners, and the on-site chef offers a delectable menu that’s 11 pages long. “We can customize it any way you’d like – you can pick as much or as little food as you’d like, and with our pricing, you can build a full menu within our minimums,” Bryant says.

Bryant says she’s honored that couples have been raving about how easy it was to have their event at Gather, the excellent food, and the efficient, customer-oriented staff.

“If your wedding is stressing you out, you’re doing too much,” she says. “Let me take that on for you – and it’ll be done. If you want easy, we’ll do that for you. We do only one wedding per day so that there is no rush on either end. It really will be as easy for you as I say it is.”

For information: Go online to gathermckinney.com or call 972-548-8882.

Heard-Craig Center: History & Hospitality

If couples wish to celebrate their big day in a beautiful historical site, they should consider booking their wedding and reception at one of the venues at the Heard-Craig Center for the Arts in downtown McKinney.

The Heard-Craig House is a museum listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a Recorded Texas Historic Landmark. While it’s not available to lease, couples can rent the elegant Heard-Craig Hall, get married outdoors in picturesque Katie’s Garden, or enjoy a celebration with a small group of family and friends in the Carriage House. There are still available 2014 dates.

Executive Director Barbara Johnson and her staff love being part of a couple’s historic day. They take joy in discussing brides’ ideas — often assembled from Pinterest.com — and then showing them a photo album illustrating the ways the Heard-Craig venues can be transformed to fit a bride’s theme.

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The Heard-Craig Hall is ready for a wedding reception. Photo courtesy of the Heard-Craig Center for the Arts.

“We take a lot of photos so that other brides can get ideas for their wedding,” Johnson says. “When you walk into a room and it’s not decorated for a wedding, sometimes it’s hard to imagine what it would look like. If you look at photos of ideas, it helps a lot.

“We always try to give superior customer service and let them know that we’re with them the whole way,” Johnson continues. “We want to make their event an easy, great event for them so we are happy to work for them as much as they need or want us to.”

Entire wedding parties and the bride and groom’s relatives often tour the Heard-Craig house museum before the wedding so that they learn about the venue’s rich past.

“We love that they do this because when they have their wedding, they have a real sense of our history and McKinney’s history,” Johnson says. “There are so many people who love getting married in the historic district because there’s so much to do on the square. When they have people visiting from out of town, they can show friends and family something that’s really exceptional when they go to downtown McKinney.”

For information: Go online to heardcraig.org or call 972-569-6909.

About the author: Holly Becka is the owner of HorsePower Communications, a public relations, public involvement, and business writing and editing firm in McKinney. She cries at weddings, loves creative wedding cakes, and favors reception venues with big dance floors. You can reach her at holly@horsepowercommunications.com.
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Thankful for Great Publicity for a Great Cause

By Holly Becka, HorsePower Communications

When people who work for a good cause receive terrific publicity, it makes my heart sing.

I could not have asked for more lovely coverage than the beautiful photo essay presented today by The Dallas Morning News about Gingerbread for Humanity. This annual Christmastime fundraiser at Trinity Presbyterian Church in McKinney lets participants decorate gingerbread houses and enjoy frivolities while doing something sweet for the community. All proceeds benefit North Collin County Habitat for Humanity.

The coverage reflects the hard work and inspiring motives of the volunteers’ efforts, not to mention the good family fun that the event breeds. To read the DMN story and look at all the great photos, please go to this link.

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Photos by Dallas Morning News Special Contributor Brandon Wade

Starting late last spring, HorsePower Communications was honored to serve on the organizing committee for the eighth annual Gingerbread for Humanity fundraiser. HorsePower developed a marketing plan and put it into action — the first time the event has had a comprehensive, coordinated marketing strategy. Our goal was to raise general public awareness about this incredibly fun event to attract new participants and increase fundraising profits.

HorsePower Communications’ pro bono efforts included writing and distributing news releases and media alerts, ad coordination and placement, social media campaigns, and taking advantage of low-cost and free marketing outlets.GBH_logo color

Thank you to chief Gingerbread for Humanity organizers Pam Hatch and Dawn Serr for allowing us to be a part of such a wonderful event! Next year’s Gingerbread for Humanity date is already set. Mark your calendars for Saturday, Dec. 13, 2014!

HorsePower Communications believes in giving back to the community and in sharing our gifts to promote others. We offer special rates for nonprofits. Call us at 214-208-3524 to discuss your project and receive a quote.


Gingerbread For Humanity Fundraiser On Saturday, Dec. 14 Benefits North Collin County Habitat Chapter

Reserve Your Tickets Now Before This Popular Event Sells Out

By Holly Becka, HorsePower Communications

You’re invited to take part in an ongoing tradition that combines family fun and the heavenly scent of gingerbread with the opportunity to make a positive difference in your community.

Registration is ongoing for the eighth annual Gingerbread for Humanity event at Trinity Presbyterian Church in McKinney, Texas.

On Saturday, Dec. 14, you can decorate and take home a fully assembled gingerbread house while supporting North Collin County Habitat for Humanity. The candy buffet — described as “awesome” by children who flock to the event each year — will delight any gingerbread house decorator. Be sure to stop by the photo booth to get a free picture of your family, your gingerbread creation and Mrs. Claus before you leave.

Gingerbread slide-TPC holiday bazaarThis popular holiday event always sells out, so pre-registration is highly recommended. To register, please go online to www.tpcmckinney.org and click on the gingerbread icon to download the registration form. Paid registrations are due by Dec. 8 to secure reservations to the event.

Anyone unable to attend the Dec. 14 event may still participate by ordering Gingerbread for Humanity kits from Trinity. Kits contain fully assembled gingerbread houses and plenty of frosting and candy for decorating at a later time. They’re great for holiday parties and children’s activities. Look for the link on Trinity’s website to order your kit.

Gingerbread for Humanity Details:

  • Time: 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 14
  • Location: Trinity Presbyterian Church, 5871 W. Virginia Parkway, McKinney
  • Cost: $32 when you pre-register; $38 at the door (spaces limited)
  • Registration details: Go online to www.tpcmckinney.org and click on the Gingerbread icon to download the registration form.

It’s a great time for a greater good. All proceeds benefit homes to be constructed as part of North Collin County Habitat for Humanity’s mission “to put God’s love into action by building homes and communities.”

NCC Habitat is part of a global non-profit housing organization operated on Christian principles. The organization encourages positive relationships throughout the community by advocating for fair housing policies and by providing training to help families improve their shelter conditions.


Delicious, Healthy Food Part of the Restorative Experience at Crescent Moon Lodge and Retreat Center

By Holly Becka, HorsePower Communications

The Crescent Moon Lodge and Retreat Center is restorative in every sense of the word, right down to the wholesome farm-to-table group meals prepared by the on-site chef.

When Dr. Suzanne Hales of CCA North Texas founded the Crescent Moon Lodge near the Texas-Oklahoma border, she intended it to be a tranquil, recuperative place for families, groups and individuals – a respite for anyone looking to unwind and enjoy the healing power of nature. That is why healthful group meals, available upon request, are part of the Crescent Moon’s comprehensive approach to a soothing, relaxing experience for guests.

Locally Sourced Food

Crescent Moon guests can refuel with professionally prepared seasonal meals featuring fresh, local meats, cheeses and organic vegetables, including many grown on-site in the center’s organic garden. In addition, group meals can be customized for any dietary need (including vegetarian and vegan), says Anne Young, a former caterer and private chef in Dallas before she moved to Rattan, Oklahoma, to serve as caretaker and chef at the Crescent Moon.

Organic veggies from the Crescent Moon Lodge and Retreat Center's garden

Organic veggies from the Crescent Moon Lodge and Retreat Center’s garden

“I believe in eating fresh foods and buying locally as much as possible,” Young says. “I don’t believe in buying food that has to travel hundreds of miles to reach our plates. Our ultimate goal here at the Crescent Moon is to garden with exclusively heirloom plants and avoid any engineered foods, as much as possible.”

Seasonal favorites for autumn include Cuban chicken with saffron rice, olives and tomatoes, served with salad and homemade bread; currant-glazed pork tenderloin with wild rice, corn casserole and mushrooms Florentine; and fresh pizza with goat cheese (made from milk obtained from a nearby goat farm), spinach and artichokes – to name just a few options.

Healthy or Decadent: Your Choice

While healthy, low-fat and low-sodium meals are always available, some guests opt for more decadent group meals, which Young is happy to prepare as well. A recent feast that Young prepared for a men’s group included Croque Madame (a luscious casserole with French bread, ham, gruyere cheese and a Dijon- béchamel sauce topped with fried eggs). Dessert was homemade banana pecan ice cream prepared by Dr. Hales.

“It was delicious,” Young says. “One of the guests brought fresh peaches for everyone, so I whipped up a peach cobbler with a sugar cookie crust to go with it. Every single guest we served this meal to came up to me and raved about it.”

If you’re craving food fresh off the grill, Young and her husband specialize in preparing delectable brisket, burgers, grilled chicken poppers (chicken strips with a jalapeno sliver wrapped in bacon and grilled) and grilled corn, among other goodies.

“The food here is a big selling point,” Young says. “People enjoy a freshly prepared, home-cooked meal, and we love providing it for them.”

Upcoming Foodie & Cooking Retreats

In coming months, Young plans to host workshops on cooking, baking, cheese making and wine tasting at the Crescent Moon. Call 214-926-2074 for details or to schedule your group for such a workshop.

Young is happy to share her extensive cooking experience with Crescent Moon guests.

“I come from a family of six kids, and all my family recipes are designed to feed a lot of people,” she says, “so when I was divorced and cooking for just me and my young daughter, we had all this extra food left over. I started selling the extras, making sandwiches and desserts to sell at my office for extra money, and from there I began catering parties.”

Crescent Moon Logo 200 x 200To become a more accomplished chef, Young studied cooking, nutrition, wine pairings and sanitation at El Centro College’s culinary school and served as a caterer for 15 years. She then became a personal chef for 10 families in Dallas. She also served as a wine consultant for a Napa Valley winery and conducted wine tastings throughout the Dallas area for several years.

While Crescent Moon guests are welcome to prepare their own meals in the fully stocked kitchen, Young enjoys cooking for guests. For details on pricing, please check the reservations page on the Crescent Moon’s website.

Let the Crescent Moon Lodge Pamper You

“I like all kinds of food and can cook just about anything, so our menu is very versatile,” Young says. “I love pampering people and making their stay at the Crescent Moon Lodge as comfortable and as fun as possible. Good food is just one of the many benefits we offer guests.”

For more information about the Crescent Moon Lodge and Retreat Center, please go online to www.crescentmoonlodge.com.

Amenities include sleeping accommodations for 24, four bathrooms, a large open living area with a stunning oversized stone fireplace, a full kitchen, a wrap-around porch and a hot tub. Visitors enjoy panoramic views, cultivated gardens, a five-acre pond, three docks, a river, catch-and-release fishing, bird and wildlife watching, a stone labyrinth and trails for jogging, hiking and exploring.

To make a reservation or obtain answers to any questions, please call 214-926-2074.

About the Crescent Moon Lodge and Retreat Center:

Join us for a retreat into nature. The Crescent Moon Lodge and Retreat Center is a relaxing, tranquil respite for groups, families and friends. The 5,000-square-foot lodge stands on 160 acres of wooded hills in the town of Rattan, Oklahoma, near the Texas-Oklahoma border. The Crescent Moon Lodge and Retreat Center provides comfort and quiet reflection amid natural beauty. For more information, please go online to www.crescentmoonlodge.com.

About CCA North Texas:

CCA has provided counseling services to residents from McKinney and the surrounding area for more than 25 years. Founded by Dr. Suzanne Hales, CCA offers a staff that includes licensed professional counselors, social workers, therapists and a psychiatrist who provide counseling, psychotherapy and psychiatric care for adults, children, couples and families. CCA is located at 2750 W. Virginia Parkway, Suite 104 in McKinney. To make an appointment, please call 972-542-8144. For more information, please go to www.ccanorthtexas.com. CCA’s therapy provides encouragement, support, information and assistance to help you in the changes and transformations you seek in your life. We are honored to be a part of your process of change, and we applaud your courage in seeking assistance to make changes in your life.


Shop Local and Support McKinney Small Businesses during MLA Business Expo on Nov. 11

By Holly Becka, HorsePower Communications

The McKinney Ladies Association (MLA) is comprised of diverse volunteers from all walks of life who work together for community betterment.

But exactly who are these local business owners who graciously donate their time to help the McKinney-area community? The public is welcome to attend the MLA Member Business/Vendor Showcase on Monday, Nov. 11 to find out.

“MLA is organizing our first-ever business fair to spotlight all of the business owners and vendors who so willingly give of their time to support MLA and our community,” explained MLA President Becky Smeltzer. “We want to do what we can to support them for being part of MLA’s ongoing efforts to raise funds for charities throughout our community.”

The MLA Members’ Business Expo and Vendor Showcase is scheduled from 7 to 9 p.m. Monday, Nov. 11 at the McKinney Performing Arts Center, 111 N. Tennessee in historic downtown McKinney, Texas. Vendors will exhibit information about their companies, and a wide variety of services will be represented — ranging from jewelry, makeup, fine baked goods and window treatments to financial advice, professional photography and public relations/business writing. Vendors say that holiday pricing will be available for those who would like to shop early for the holidays!Updated MLA Vendor Flyer 110513

The Nov. 11 event is free to attend. Snacks will be provided, and glasses of wine will be available for purchase. In addition, there will be goodies and door prize giveaways, so be sure to mark your calendars now. All attendees are asked to bring a donation to benefit Seniors Helping Seniors in McKinney.

MLA’s mission is to support the children and families of McKinney through special events and fundraising efforts organized by MLA. The group meets monthly during each club year, which mimics a school calendar and extends from September to May. Each meeting is designed to give members a philanthropic opportunity as well as the chance to engage in a variety of social activities with other members. MLA’s goal is to have fun, make friends and change lives in our community.


New ManeGait Program Boosts Brain Development and Delivers Unbridled Hope

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Belle rides her favorite horse at ManeGait in McKinney, Texas. Photo courtesy of Lori Wilson Photography.

We were honored to tell the story of “GaitWay to the Brain,” a groundbreaking program at ManeGait Therapeutic Horsemanship in McKinney, Texas, that is having wonderful successes and making an incredible difference in the lives of so many families.

Here is the story, printed in the September 2013 issue of McKinney Magazine, which is published by the McKinney Chamber of Commerce.

New ManeGait Program Boosts Brain Development and Delivers Unbridled Hope

By Holly Becka, holly@horsepowercommunications.com

When it’s time to mount up, Belle Gordon enthusiastically climbs into the saddle on her favorite horse. Blond braids peek out of the 6-year-old’s riding helmet as she takes the reins and starts around the ring. Anyone watching sees a smiling, confident young rider.

Her parents see a miracle.

Belle is one of 23 participants making great strides in a new program that began last fall at ManeGait Therapeutic Horsemanship in McKinney, a nonprofit facility that provides equestrian skill-based lessons and services for North Texas children and adults with disabilities.

Called GaitWay to the Brain, the new program builds upon and amplifies the benefits that participants receive through therapeutic horseback riding. It’s based upon a growing body of scientific evidence that performing certain tasks and exercises can help form fresh neural pathways in the brain, leading to new cognitive connections that improve focus and understanding. Participants work on daily therapeutic activities at home to further boost the GaitWay program’s benefits.

ManeGait is the only therapeutic horsemanship program in the North Texas area to offer this unique “brain-building” program.

Amazing Progress

Belle, who has been diagnosed with Autism, was seeing a bevy of specialists when she started the GaitWay program in January 2013. Her parents hoped GaitWay – and therapeutic horseback riding in general – would augment Belle’s ongoing therapies, allow her to be surrounded by an accepting community and let her develop a new skill.

They didn’t expect that Belle would make astounding improvements in just six months.

“This is a different child than she was six months ago,” says her father, Ben Gordon. “Being in the GaitWay program – I think it’s the only way to explain the progress she’s made.”

Crystal Gordon, Belle’s mother, says the 6-year-old’s overall happiness has increased, she has a better sense of self, and her use of language “has just exploded.” Her parents explain that Belle’s new ability to use sentences and different words to communicate has made a world of difference because Belle feels far less frustrated than she had just six months ago.

“Belle has learned to read, write, do simple math, express her feelings as never before, to speak in sentences – not just in one-word communications – and desire pretend play and really take it far,” Crystal says.

Because Belle’s attention span has tripled, the 6-year-old now has the ability to self-regulate and can be around crowds and loud sounds. It’s been life-changing, her parents say. Their daughter now enjoys eating in public and going shopping at a grocery store or the mall. She even sat with rapt attention through her older brother’s band concert.

Crystal’s eyes well with tears when she talks about the positive changes she’s witnessed in her daughter. Perhaps one of the most important things that GaitWay has provided, she says, is hope.

An Organic Beginning

ManeGait Executive Director Patricia Nelson and Donor Relations Manager Landon Darling Schneider know that hope means a great deal for parents seeking to help their children with disabilities, and they are honored that ManeGait is known for providing it.

Founded in November 2007, ManeGait is a testament to the healing power of the horse. Riders with various disabilities learn to control a horse, gaining body strength, flexibility, better balance, improved range of motion and physical endurance, as well as improved cognitive, emotional and social skills. Riders receive assistance from Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International-registered instructors, more than 300 dedicated volunteers and carefully screened, calm horses.

Interestingly, Robin Harwell, the certified speech pathologist with 35 years of expertise who now directs the GaitWay program, initially was a ManeGait volunteer. She has a private practice, teaches fellow therapists how to integrate a neurobiological approach into work with their patients, and she formerly worked with a therapeutic horsemanship program in Louisiana.

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Therapist Robin Harwell and GaitWay to the Brain participant Belle are shown in the ManeGait barn. Photo courtesy of Lori Wilson Photography.

ManeGait’s board approved the GaitWay to the Brain pilot program, which began in fall 2012 with ManeGait donors’ support. The program is now being expanded thanks to a CoServ grant and additional donor funding.

Harwell explains that humans learn and interact as the brain receives information along three major sensory pathways – auditory, visual and vestibular (balance). Usually, the brain seamlessly processes this information. A disability or injury can negatively affect the receptive pathways, but the right tools can help improve brain function, especially since new brain cells are created every day, Harwell says. The old belief that someone is born with a certain number of brain cells and those cells die off over time is simply wrong, according to the latest scientific research.

“With brain-building techniques, you can change the architecture of the brain,” Harwell says. “We are literally laying down wiring that adds RAM to the brain.”

GaitWay participants arrive a half-hour before their regular riding lesson in order to work with Harwell. In a cozy gatehouse that is being transformed into cognitive brain-building center, riders take part in structured, specific exercises individualized to their needs. They listen to music designed to stimulate their brains and balance systems while being gently spun. They perform exercises, sing songs and even drink water to activate “brain buttons,” as the children call them. Goals are set, progress is noted and adjustments are made for each rider, who then works at home on activities designed to reinforce the brain building.

Harwell also works with the participants during their therapeutic horseback riding lessons. The result has been that GaitWay participants are more focused during their riding lessons so they get more from them. And that progress has been carrying over into everyday life.

Parents Rejoice

Holly Sanchez’s 4-year-old son, Christian Pietersz, has been working with Harwell since the GaitWay program began. The youngster’s speech and gait issues have improved, and he’s much more focused and calm.

One side of Christian’s body is weaker than the other, and GaitWay exercises along with therapeutic horseback riding have helped him grow stronger, Sanchez says. “It’s helping both sides of his brain to be retrained to work better together,” she says.

Sanchez and the Gordons watched their children play and dance before huddling together in front of a computer screen where a ManeGait volunteer had been working. When 6-year-old Belle noticed that a visitor was taking notes, she happily pointed at her name written on a notepad. Both she and Christian said the best part about visiting ManeGait is getting to ride their favorite horse.

Their parents say ManeGait and Robin Harwell have earned special places in their hearts.

“Robin was key in our success,” Crystal Gordon says. “She has changed our lives. The GaitWay program has allowed Belle to become a truly happy kid. We are forever grateful.”

For more information on ManeGait and the GaitWay to the Brain program, visit ManeGait.org. For more information about Harwell’s approach, visit BuildTheBrain.net. ManeGait attributes much of its success to its dedicated volunteers but notes that more volunteers are always needed. To volunteer at ManeGait, click on the “Volunteer” tab on ManeGait.org.

About the author: Holly Becka is the owner of HorsePower Communications, a public relations, marketing and business writing firm in McKinney. Email her at holly@horsepowercommunications.com.