Cowgirl for Christ

by Joan Kurkowski-Gillen

North Texas Catholic

March 28, 2018

CLEBURNE — Science is finally catching up to what Margaret Dickens knew for a long time — humans and horses have a special connection. And the emotional bond between rider and animal is only part of the story.

Twenty-two years ago, the St. Bartholomew parishioner co-founded Wings of Hope, a non-profit therapy program that uses horses to help children and adults overcome physical, mental, or emotional disabilities. With help from volunteers, riders are placed on a saddle, circle the arena guided by side walkers, and small miracles begin to happen.

“The four-beat rhythm of the horse’s gait simulates a human’s natural walk,” Dickens said, explaining how riding causes a rotation of a person’s hips as well as side and forward motion. “It exercises every muscle in the body.”

Continued equitherapy strengthens legs, improves balance, and aids the digestive system. Tight muscles — a symptom of cerebral palsy — are relaxed.

Riders with other conditions like muscular dystrophy, spina bifida, or autism, also experience psychological and physical relief.

“We’ve had several people come in wheelchairs or walkers and they’re walking independently now,” Dickens said. “Wings of Hope has seen every kind of disability imaginable. Our youngest riders are two. The oldest are in their 80s.”

Margaret Dickens, co-founder of Wings of Hope, holds "Sherlock" at Wings of Hope in Cleburne. (NTC photo/Ben Torres)

For her dedication to helping others achieve their potential through equitherapy, the 79-year-old was inducted into the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame during a Nov. 21 ceremony at the organization’s Fort Worth-based museum. The list of new inductees included country music legend Reba McEntire, her mother and public education advocate Jacqueline Smith McEntire, and Ann Romney, active promoter for multiple sclerosis research and wife of 2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney. They join 130 previous Hall of Fame inductees recognized as women of courage, resilience, and independence.

“It was a huge honor just to be nominated. Equitherapy is getting more public attention because it’s getting such fabulous results,” Dickens said. “I don’t think they’ve had an inductee who worked in that area before.”

A Catholic convert who was drawn to the Church at an early age, she’s quick to point out that Wings of Hope was founded on Christian principles but serves people of all faiths. When people ask the Fort Worth native how she turned a start-up nonprofit into a nationally-recognized program with an annual budget of more than $300,000, her answer credits a higher power.

“God has been our chairman of the board from the beginning,” Dickens said. “How did I do this? I didn’t. I just hung on and followed the Lord’s calling.”

Her journey to launching Wings of Hope began decades before the program’s barn doors opened for the first time in July 1996. Born loving horses, the North Texas State University alumna majored in physical education with the intention of teaching horseback riding after graduation. But, after receiving her degree, she moved to Germany to become recreation director for a USO contractor and met her husband, Lt. Col. Waverley J. (Dick) Dickens.

Eventually, the couple returned to the U.S. and settled in North Texas where they raised two children. The inspiration to use horses to help children overcome their fears and other challenges came during her years as activity director at an adolescent mental health treatment center. Horse trainer Patti Pace, a friend of Dickens, led prayer groups at the residential site.

When the facility closed, its board of directors said it would give Dickens and Pace the center’s horses and equipment if they started a non-profit equestrian program. Moving to a 14-stall barn and covered arena owned by Pace, the venture accepted its first rider in July 1996. Wings of Hope later relocated to a property in Cleburne.

“So that’s how Wings of Hope was born,” affirmed the co-founder who served as executive director of the organization until 2015. “Our core purpose is to provide hope and healing through gentle horses and the love of God.”

Over the years, gifts from the Carter and Ryan Foundations in Fort Worth, as well as smaller donations, helped the program grow to become the caretaker of two dozen horses who partner with 85 young and old riders a week with help from 100 volunteers. A Premier Accredited Center of PATH (Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship) International, Wings of Hope has become a sanctuary for many battling psychological and emotional challenges — including military veterans. Suffering from war injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), many find peace and recovery during time spent caring for horses.

PTSD can be crippling, according to Janie Dann, one of the program’s certified instructors.

Volunteer Joe Berberich guides a horse named "Chocolate" as Ethan Ainsworth rides him with the help of his brother Joshua and mother Leslie Ainsworth at Wings of Hope. (NTC photo/Ben Torres)

“Many times, combat veterans come home and are very vigilant about their surroundings, don’t like loud noises and worry obsessively about their children because of what they’ve seen in war torn countries,” said the former Wings of Hope board member. “While standing in a pasture with a horse, they form the first trusting relationship they’ve had since coming back and they can take those feelings back to their families. It’s such a boost.”

A pioneer in the equine therapeutic horseback riding movement, Dickens is retired but remains a Wings of Hope board member. She leads a voluntary prayer group twice a week inside a newly constructed chapel connected to the barn.

“She’s a visionary and Wings of Hope would not be here without her,” Dann added. “She never questioned it or gave up on it. Wings of Hope will be here long after we’re gone because of what she started 22 years ago.”

Dickens said the success stories she witnessed at Wings of Hope and her association with the Brothers and Sisters of Charity — a canonical community of the Catholic Church started by John Michael Talbot, was a motivating force in difficult times.

“That community kept me grounded and knowing people were praying and supporting me was unbelievable for my faith,” she added. “Nothing is impossible with God.”

CLEBURNE — Science is finally catching up to what Margaret Dickens knew for a long time — humans and horses have a special connection. And the emotional bond between rider and animal is only part of the story.

Published (until 3/28/2035)
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