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Home : News : News
NEWS | July 18, 2023

Horsemanship class provides unique experience for exceptional families

By Lori A. Bultman 502nd Air Base Wing Public Affairs

This summer, military families enrolled in the Exceptional Family Member Program at Joint Base San Antonio were offered the opportunity to attend horsemanship classes thanks to funding from the Air Force Personnel Center.

Annually, the AFPC allocates funds to Air Force Exceptional Family Member Programs for educational, recreational events meant to build family resiliency.

The horsemanship classes were such a big hit in 2022, according to Sally Gonzalez, EFMP manager at JBSA-Fort Sam Houston, that program staff members decided to offer them again, providing additional JBSA EFMP families the opportunity to participate.

“Horses have been known to help children and adults with disabilities engage in physical activity and improve mental health,” Gonzalez said, noting that all JBSA EFMP family members ages six to 18 were eligible to apply, and participants were selected through random drawings.   

Each selectee attends a three-hour course, led by specially trained 502nd Force Support Group personnel, where they are taught how to safely approach, care for, and ride horses at the JBSA-Fort Sam Houston Equestrian Center.

“I teach them everything, so they are comfortable on the ground and safe around the horses, before they ever get the chance to get up on them,” said Deanne Shead, 502nd FSS facility manager at the center. “It is really important to me to make sure they are comfortable on the ground before they get on a horse.”

Shead said she enjoys seeing the children’s excitement when they are assigned a horse, and their eagerness to learn how to engage appropriately with the animals. 

“Their interaction with the horses is great to see,” she said. “We have some fantastic horses here, and they are very calm and very patient, and very good with the kids.”

It isn’t always love at first sight though.

“When the kids first get here, they can be a little quiet and somewhat subdued,” Shead said. “But, by the end of the class, they are talking and chatting and asking questions; they kind of come out of their shell and get really comfortable around the horses.”

Oliver Mendoza, who participated in the course July 11, was very excited about the class and the opportunity to ride a horse.

“I was thinking it would be all talking, and I would just get to be on a horse for a minute,” he said as he watched trainers explain the three types of brushes he would be using on his assigned steed. “But now, I think I am going to get on a horse for a while, and I think it will be a really fast horse.”

Evander Mendoza, who was not quite as excited as his brother, said he hadn’t really had an interest in horses, but figured this was his chance to meet them and learn more.  

“I would have preferred to have stayed in bed, but … I guess I am going to learn about horses today,” he said, noting that what he had learned so far was “very interesting.”

When asked if he would ride on a horse, Evander conceded, “Why not?”

Shead said these are the experiences she wants to see with the participants.

“The goal of the classes is to give JBSA’s exceptional families a small but important break from what can be a busy military lifestyle,” she said. “I tell everyone when they come thru here, and I tell my staff too, military life is not easy, not just for the service member, but also for the kids and spouses. This provides them a great little outlet to relax and not think about it for a little while.”

To find information on this and other classes, events, and activities offered to JBSA’s exceptional families, go to the JBSA EFMP Facebook page at, or the website at