East Tennessee native Lynn Klimas Petr, 56, has that intangible quality most horsewomen have. The director of Shangri-La Therapeutic Academy of Riding has a calm way of speaking and moving, but exudes confidence and control as she leads the way through the airy, spacious barn at her stable.
Petr bought her first pony in eighth grade and grew up shouldering the brunt of the responsibility for it and every other horse she would eventually own, even persuading a neighbor to let her keep the pony in their barn (for a monthly fee).
"I think he was just so taken aback that I had enough moxie to go ring his doorbell and broker a deal with him," she says.
Petr later became interested in how horses could help the disabled. She worked as a camp counselor at a horse camp during college, and was frequently put in charge of a troublemaker. While on a timeout walk one day, the girl asked if she could go say hello to her favorite horse. She started crying and telling the horse her family had left her to go on vacation, asking wasn't she a part of the family? For Petr, a light bulb went on, and the gears in her head started churning out the idea that she could help kids.
While reading a magazine that summer, she saw a small blurb about the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association (now Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International). Petr was excited that it wasn't just her out in the world thinking horseback riding could help people. So after getting her bachelor's degree in special education at the University of Tennessee, she went around the Knoxville area trying to sell her idea of using horses to help kids in 1979.
She needed that moxie when yet another person laughed at her idea.
"So I slammed my book shut and I stuck my finger in his face and said, ‘Look, this is going to work. And you're going to miss the boat, and you're going to be sorry you missed the boat because someone else is going to buy this, and it's going to be great,'" Petr says.
She stomped out of Steve Brody's office thinking her shot at employment anywhere in the Knoxville area was doomed. But Brody was convinced after giving her an hour with six kids living with varying disabilities and watching her interact with them in her backyard, with her own horses. Brody hired Petr to work at the Daniel Arthur Special School in Oak Ridge.
After going to a PATH Intl. meeting, making connections, and realizing her education background would benefit the organization, Petr helped create the certification tests for therapeutic riding instructors, and chaired several committees for the organization. She also began her master's degree at UT, with the idea of a therapeutic riding school as her thesis. She wrote grant applications and filled out the forms necessary to receive a nonprofit status, and then began on the winding road toward the academy she directs now. The barn was built according to Petr's own design in 2004. It has everything she needs: a waiting area for parents, a well-lit and tidy tack room, spacious grooming areas, an accessible mounting block, and two riding arenas. The huge stalls even have doors through which even shorter kids and people can see, and information about each horse on a card attached to the stall door.
The whole complex is used by kids and adults with disabilities ranging from blindness, muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy, and more. Additionally, she works with at-risk youth and military veterans with disabilities.
Still, the riders aren't just being lifted onto the horse and led around for a horse ride.
"They're in every aspect of getting that horse prepared. They're tacking, they're grooming, they're getting the equipment ready, they're putting it in the right spot. And then the activities we do are working toward goals—specific riding goals as well as personal goals," Petr explains.
In fact, therapeutic riding can help improve balance, coordination, and muscle tone by doing various exercises astride the horse. Meanwhile, caring for the horse and tacking up before the ride offers people some independence, self-control, and self-esteem, she says.
Overlooking the complex's lush, green pastures nestled in a hilly valley, Petr says moxie is what's helped her navigate through the opportunities, setbacks, and successes in her quest to start Shangri-La.
"You just have to recognize it's the right door and walk through it," she says.