SpiritHorse ‘give back’ benefits local family

The Great Give Back fundraising event sponsored by SpiritHorse Connections looks to help local Sanger family afford a service dog to support their 10-year-old son

The Ellis family, Sarah, Michael, Miriam and Parker, the soon-to-be recipient of the service dog. Photo submitted by Michael Ellis.
The Ellis family, Sarah, Michael, Miriam and Parker, the soon-to-be recipient of the service dog. Photo submitted by Michael Ellis.
Serena Bettis
Published October 26, 2023  • 
10:30 am

KINGSBURG – Area nonprofit SpiritHorse Connections is hosting its second annual “Great Give Back” fundraising event in early November to help one local family get a service animal for their son. 

A social event designed as an “adult night out,” the Great Give Back is the organization’s way of providing for its community members in need. This year, the fundraiser will benefit 10-year-old Parker Ellis, whose family is working to acquire a service dog specially trained to meet his needs.

“We felt very honored this year that they chose Parker and that SpiritHorse was able to contribute to our goal for him, which is getting him a service animal just to ease social interactions and to have a companion,” Michael Ellis, Parker’s father, said.

The event begins at 6 p.m. Nov. 4 and tickets, which can be purchased through Eventbrite, cost $150 per couple or $75 for an individual. Located at the SpiritHorse Connections facility at 12099 E. Stroud Ave. in Kingsburg, the event will feature live music, a small-bites dinner, drinks and dessert.

SpiritHorse Connections

Kingsburg’s SpiritHorse Connections is a licensed operating center of the global organization SpiritHorse International, which was founded in 2001 and is based out of Texas. SpiritHorse offers equine-assisted therapy for a variety of individuals with various needs and abilities. 

Equine-assisted therapy can be beneficial for many different people, including veterans with PTSD and children with mental and physical disabilities. For many children, equine therapy helps them with walking, sitting upright and speaking; the idea behind it is that the movement of the horse stimulates the rider’s vestibular system that controls these bodily functions, according to SpiritHorse.

At SpiritHorse Kingsburg, riders work through a 97-step therapy program tailored to specific disabilities, according to the organization’s website. In addition to riding, staff members work with clients to teach them how to care for horses and prepare them for riding. 

“Through this process riders also learn skills such as following instructions, focus, task sequence, participation, independence and they gain self confidence,” the SpiritHorse website says.

SpiritHorse has different programs available depending on an individual’s needs, and works with its clients to provide program scholarships if needed. According to its website, the facility will never turn someone away due to their inability to pay.

The Ellis family

Both Parker and his twin sister, Miriam, were diagnosed with autism around seven years ago, Ellis said. At that time, Ellis and his wife, Sarah, began to seek out the appropriate therapies for their children and eventually found SpiritHorse Connections in Kingsburg; Parker and Miriam have consistently been involved with SpiritHorse since they were 5 years old.

Ellis said that Parker and Miriam both experienced the same regression in speech when they were young, which prompted the family to seek some professional help and led to their diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder. The twins each experience autism in their own ways, however, and SpiritHorse has been good for both of them, Ellis said.

Ellis said that Parker took a full year of classes with SpiritHorse and enjoyed it, but the family determined that while Parker enjoys “the farm” — which is what they call the SpiritHorse facility — riding isn’t his thing. Miriam, however, loves horseback riding, and Ellis said that this current fall semester is the first time in the last four years she has not taken a course.

Even without riding, Ellis said that Parker loves to spend time at SpiritHorse, and interacts with all of their animals, including dogs, cats, emus and chickens. 

Parker having a staredown with a chicken at SpiritHorse Connections. Photo courtesy of the SpiritHorse Connections Facebook page.

Ellis described Parker as a sweet and loving boy who is “hardly ever inside and hardly ever clean.” While he has many sensory challenges and has difficulty with social interactions, he loves to see his peers play and he greatly enjoys spending time in nature and with animals, Ellis said. 

Miriam is more of a social butterfly and is also “a very sweet and smart young lady,” Ellis said. She benefits a lot from the therapy program at SpiritHorse, especially the social aspect, and Ellis said she has learned a lot about responsibility through SpiritHorse. 

Twin siblings Miriam and Parker Ellis, who have been involved with the services of SpiritHorse Connections since they were 5 years old. Photo submitted by Michael Ellis.

A service dog for Parker

For Parker, going to new and different places is very difficult, and he has a hard time communicating when he gets overwhelmed, Ellis said. He feels all of his emotions very intensely, and it is largely for these challenges that the family is working to get Parker a service dog. 

“We started this almost three years ago, and we went through several different agencies,” Ellis said. “It’s actually quite a complicated thing to obtain, and often quite expensive.”

According to the event description, insurance does not cover the costs associated with a service animal, and the entire process costs around $10,000 at a minimum. Ellis said the family is very thankful that SpiritHorse selected them for the Great Give Back event, and any donations raised will help them pay the service dog trainer and allow them to cover the rest.

Parker laying down with a mother cat as she feeds two black kittens. Photo courtesy of the SpiritHorse Connections Facebook page.

The process is finally coming together, however, and Ellis said the family has found a breeder and a trainer after speaking with many different professionals about how to meet Parker’s needs. The mother of Parker’s future service dog is currently pregnant, and the litter is expected to arrive early next year. 

The Ellis family will take on the service dog as a puppy and provide it with basic training. Ellis said they will then work with a trainer when the dog is around a year old to get it certified as a service dog. 

Ellis said what they’re looking for with a service dog mimics what PTSD support dogs do, which is “to recognize when Parker gets emotionally upset and be able to provide some deep pressure.” 

Deep pressure therapy, like using a weighted blanket or being squeezed by a tight hug, helps relieve anxiety and is something that works well for Parker. Ellis said that when the service dog is trained, it will be able to sit on Parker’s chest and provide that support to him. 

Further, because of Parker’s strong emotional connection with animals, having a service dog as a companion will help him feel more comfortable in new situations and get the most out of his experiences.

Ellis said their family is beyond grateful for everyone at SpiritHorse, especially co-founder Kasey Thiesen, as the SpiritHorse staff are always so welcoming, kind and supportive to everyone in its community. He said that there aren’t many places where Parker feels comfortable, but SpiritHorse is always one where he can be.

“We want to always highlight those positives in Parker, and through that attitude we’ve met a lot of wonderful people and a lot of people who enjoy Parker for who he is,” Ellis said.

Serena Bettis
General Assignment Reporter