Angel Heart Farm (AHF) is a non-profit farm located in Nashville, Tenn. that provides equine-assisted therapy to children with chronic and life-threatening illnesses. It was founded by Tracy Kujawa in 2001 after her second battle with cancer.
"I had dream I was teaching bald-headed children to ride horses," owner and founder Tracy Kujawa said. "We partner with children's hospitals including Saint Jude's, Vanderbilt Children's, Tri Star and a host of other organizations that serve children battling cancer."
Kujawa grew up in Michigan competing in 4-H with her Half-Arabian and Welsh pony. She's competed at Class A regional level Arabian shows for over 25 years and has bred three Purebred Arabians that are still with her today at the farm.
"I have been blessed to have horses and ponies my entire life," Kujawa said. "During my last battle with cancer two years ago, Kiesner Training hosted a 24-hour ride-a-thon that raised over $20,000 to help my program while I was battling. I hope to get back in the show ring in early 2018 with my hunters!"
Kujawa mainly shows hunter pleasure and has trained with Brian Scoggins for many years. Around eight years ago she began training with the Ashton Kiesner in Louisville, Tenn.
As the only program of its kind in the southeastern United States, AHF works with one inquiring family at a time, using its Arabian horses and Welsh ponies as the main tools to bring happiness to children and their families by teaching the children to ride and care for their favorite horses.
With five Arabians, one Half-Arabian, three Welsh ponies and one mini, AHF also teaches the children to ride and show.
"As an amateur rider and horse-obsessed girl, I get so excited to see a little one connect with their favorite pony or horse! That first time in the saddle, being a little nervous on their first trot and seeing the giggles and confidence is the best! I am more nervous when our kiddos show than when I show. I always tell the kids, 'it is not about the ribbon, but about the ride'," Kujawa said.
All of the Angel crew (the horses/ponies) are show horses, and many of the children compete at local level and at all-breed shows. Kujawa says she is blessed to have a few National champions in the barn as well as many Class A and Regional titles. Last year, two of the children won National titles, and others won several blue ribbons at the Welsh Pony Nationals in Tulsa.
"I literally could not stop crying! I was so proud of the ponies and the kids! To compete while you are battling cancer is tough. To compete with children that have ridden their whole lives and are healthy, and to see our warriors win is, like, the best day ever! I am so proud of the children in and out of the riding arena," Kujawa said.
AHF has served over 350 children since its opening 16 years ago, and there are currently around 35 children coming to the farm regularly.
"The hardest part is the numbers change because of the children we serve. Many times our children are in the hospital for weeks, even months. Some of our children pass away from their illness. The thing we love about the program is that even when the children are in remission they still can come ride and be a part of the AHF family. Our children are real superheroes," Kujawa said. "Riding the horses and ponies gives them so much joy and confidence. They set goals and they have something to look forward to while they are in the fight of their lives. The sweetest thing is when our children wear their cowboy boots to clinic and the nurses and doctors say, 'Oh, are you riding at Angel Heart Farm today?' The kids' faces light up and they start chatting about their favorite equine. They forget or a bit they are at the hospital."
A few years ago, a doctor suggested to a parent to bring their child to AHF, to which the mother's response was, "What can a pony do for my child battling cancer?" His response was, "You will see!" This child rode with AHF for five years, competing with her favorite pony, Rocky. She passed away after battling cancer six times. Kujawa says, "I know as well as the doctors and nurses this little girl lived for her pony."
"Our children we serve will sit in their horse's stall and just talk to them about their fears and their hopes. Our children gain confidence; the horses and ponies teach them to be strong and new give up. The horse riding allows them to get exercise not only for the body, but for their minds and spirits. AHF is very family-focused; we serve one family at a time. It is a place they can reconnect as a family, have the equine experience in a happy, safe and peaceful setting," Kujawa said.
Kujawa says the children fight hard, and the ponies and horses go into battle with them. "I am so proud of the horses and ponies we have. They all are not only beautiful and kind; they are healers. They all have unique and sweet personalities and truly love their job."
Want To Get Involved?
Ride for the Gold is a way to bring awareness to childhood cancer, as well as support and funding to AHF. It's the result of the question, "how healthy kids in the Arabian community help children at AHF battling?" that Kujawa asked several years ago.
There has been over $17,000 generated for the program. Every show has a Walk Trot class for its under-10 riders. The show committee allocates one or all of the Walk Trot classes entry fee money to AHF. In return, the winner receives a gold garland sash ribbon and an AHF necklace. Kujawa says the goal for Ride for the Gold is to have it at every show, and at Youth Nationals.
"This year we had a little girl win all three of the Walk Trot classes in three different divisions. The most special part of these wins is that she lost her baby brother to cancer and was riding for him. You never know who has been touched by cancer. It could be a parent, a neighbor or a best friend that battled cancer. When it come to a child battling it does not seem real. Children are supposed to run and play, show their horses, ride their bikes, not be hooked up to chemo, or having surgeries to save their live. At AHF we feel it is a privilege to serve these courageous children," Kujawa said.
Want to help out? AHF is currently working on a capital campaign to purchase a permanent home for the program in Nashville, Tenn. You can sponsor a child, and even a horse. To learn more about sponsorships, the program and how you can get involved, visit www.angelheartfarm.net, AHF's Facebook page, or contact Tracy Kujawa at 615-566-4976.