gmhTODAY 30 gmhTODAY April June 2020s | Page 49

A spirit of hope per- meates the adaptive riding and equine- assisted therapy ranch known as One Step Closer. Founded by Landa and Mark Keirstead in 2006, the ranch has benefitted thousands of youth and military veterans through programs that foster cogni- tive, physical and emotional development. The special connection between horse and human is where the magic happens. Landa is so at one with horses, it’s hard to imagine her in any other career, but her path to founding One Step Closer was circuitous. She grew up around horses and riding but dreamed of becoming an artist. As a college student, concerns about earning a livelihood led to a 30-year career as a registered dental assistant. While she enjoyed dentistry, Landa began rethinking her life’s focus. An impromptu con- versation inspired her shift to equine-assisted therapy. “A friend shared his experience volunteering with the National Center for Equine Facilitated Therapy in Woodside, and how he helped a disabled man learn to ride. I was intrigued and decided to volunteer. People I worked with there kept asking why South County didn’t offer a similar program. I knew then I wanted to take it on.” Landa spent three months in Texas in an intensive equine-assisted therapy training pro- gram offered by Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH). “Everyone thought I was crazy. We were putting our kids through college at the time. It was a leap of faith.” In 2007 Landa worked with her first young client at Calero Stables, a popular horseback riding facility in South San Jose. Some horse owners there were skeptical about her program until they saw it in action. “Over 100 people came to our first horse- manship show. We changed a lot of minds.” When Calero Stables closed, the Keirstead’s sought a turnkey property where they could live and operate One Step Closer. Landa knew from the moment she first stepped onto the two-and-a-half acre ranch on Foothill Avenue owned by Julius and Dorothy Menendez that it was “the one.” “They thought our mission was a sign from God and took our offer despite competitive bids. In May 2011 we were open for business. Our horses settled in easily, like they’d been here for years. Word spread and clients came.” Landa carefully assesses which horses and riders are best suited to each other. She still remembers her first client, a boy with Down Syndrome, and how he couldn’t stop talking about riding his first horse. His parents shared the experience with their support group, which led to referrals. Since then, Landa has worked with clients with autism, cerebral palsy and other challenges. Doctors sometimes refer their patients to One Step Closer, which is how Landa first began working with veterans in 2013. “The Veterans Administration likes the idea of veterans working outside with horses at our ranch, and the fact that we are a PATH Premier facility. To date, we have served over 1,000 veterans. Vets don’t want to relive their stories, they want help so they can move on with life. Our program is designed for them.” Hundreds of kids have gone through the adaptive riding program, starting at age 4. It’s fun, as it should be, but it’s also therapy. The goal is to gain a little ground every day; whether it’s confidence-building or working through stroke recovery. Every activity is important, from brushing the horse, building a relationship, and putting on the saddle, to going for a ride. “I have a rider in her 20s who came to me not knowing right from left. She learned though doing. Another couldn’t feed herself, After two summers, she started feeding herself. She had made the mind and body connection. Many of our kids have been mainstreamed into regular programs because of what we do.” Volunteers go through an orientation and then shadow experienced volunteers. “A trainer once advised, ‘Do what you’re good at, don’t try to do it all.’ Mark and I fol- low that model. I direct the riding programs. He manages the business side. We love work- ing with people and serving our community as a nonprofit. Recognition from the Chamber is an honor and validation of our work and we’re grateful for it.” “Clients and volunteers tell us One Step Closer feels like family and some have been with us since the beginning. We teach people how to ride, despite their challenges. That’s how we make a posi- tive difference in this world.” “It’s an opportunity for us to mentor youth. It’s fun to see the lightbulb go off and their commitment level go up. What they do here often influences their decisions, like studying neuroscience or going to veterinary school.” 49