Programming note: Join CNN anchors and correspondents for “Champions for Change,” as they get involved in important causes, ask questions and share what they’ve discovered, Saturday, June 23 at 8pm ET on CNN.

Story highlights

CNN anchor Fredricka Whitfield reveals a childhood event that transformed her

Whitfield also saw first-hand how connecting with horses can help people heal

CNN  — 

Horses are healers. I didn’t know that when I fell in love with them.

I was 9 when I first rode one in a dusty ring outside Columbia, Maryland. At the time, I just wanted to keep up with my big brother and sister who would go out riding with friends.

I was too little and inexperienced to accompany them on the trail rides. So the folks at the barn were happy to let me sit on a pony and circle the ring to my heart’s desire.

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    From that point on, my brother and sister could never go to the stables without me.

    Not long after that, my passion for ponies and horses would only grow.

    My parents supported my passion with lessons, boots, britches and summer riding camps.

    Fredricka Whitfield horseback riding at age nine.

    Perhaps to stop my endless requests about getting a horse for my birthday or Christmas, Mom had a suggestion: volunteer at the Rock Creek Park Horse Center. Smack in the middle of Washington, DC’s sprawling Rock Creek Park, the center is a gorgeously rustic horse stable featuring trail rides and lessons.

    Mom’s idea was brilliant. It kept me in the arena of all things horses on the weekends – from cleaning their stalls, sweeping the barn, grooming and tacking the horses to eventually earning rides on what would become my favorite horse Merlin, a Fox Trotter.

    Lessons for a ‘barn rat’

    But along the way I was saddled with two of the most powerful lessons I could learn:

    • Volunteering means showing up as promised, at a minimum. And when you do, be deliberate, dedicated and diligent about every task small and large. Do that as a volunteer and you will do that in all other ways of your life.
    • And Horses heal.

    I saw this second lesson first-hand as that teen volunteer, or so-called “barn rat.” I remember my emotional response vividly.

    Here I was, volunteering for the selfish reason of wanting to be around horses, when – while tightening the girth on a horse – whoa, my attention came to a halt.

    I looked over the saddle and saw, in the distance, a young person in a riding hat coming my way who appeared to have Down syndrome.

    Then, in comes another rider with a walker of some sort. This person needed a team to help them get to and mount a horse because of a spinal condition.

    I remember thinking incredulously at the time, “No way they are going to ride.”

    And then another realization: those stalls I cleaned and that horse I tacked just assisted a fellow rider who needed a little help. It provided a little lift that may have just helped make a huge difference in their life.

    In all of my riding lessons, control was such a pronounced requisite.

    I learned that – as the rider – you lead.

    The turning point for me

    Before this moment, I hadn’t learned there was such a thing as equine-assisted therapy. And this program at Rock Creek was developed and carried out by the late Robert Douglas. Incidentally, Mr. Douglas interviewed me at Rock Creek before I could become a volunteer. He ran a tight ship – or rather, barn. He also let me and every other barn rat know that being around horses and volunteering are serious responsibilities.

    Don’t disappoint.

    During my interview, Douglas never told me about the equine-assisted therapy, nor did I know to ask. So when these riders appeared, I admit to staring, being fascinated by what was unfolding, that yes, they were here to ride – and confused before now – I didn’t know to appreciate that riding could help promote stability and control.

    While they were on horseback, with Douglas instructing them, I saw a sense of calm, happiness and confidence sweep across these riders’ faces.

    This session inspiring relaxation and balance in the saddle was a turning point for me.

    These massive, four-legged beauties are guides to so much goodness.

    Physically and mentally, horses connect with us, no matter our challenges.

    The feelings of calm, ease, discipline and invigoration that I enjoy as a rider are forever appreciated as both universal and inclusive.

    Fredricka Whitfield

    So I am so thrilled and proud to be able to show you in CNN’s series “Champions for Change” that equine-assisted therapy has expanded and grown since my first introduction to it decades ago. Among the benefactors: US military veterans battling PTSD, suicidal thoughts and other challenges.

    And as a daughter of a World War II and Korean War vet diagnosed with PTSD and sister of a US Marine (who was my first riding partner), this is heartfelt.