Kay Barkwill

Kay Barkwill will tell you she is no one special. However, if you ask one of the 70 volunteers at the Horses with Hearts complex in Martinsburg, West Virginia, they will tell you otherwise. With its beautiful rolling hills, impressive gates and barns and peaceful neighs in the background, the Horses with Hearts compound is any rider’s dream. Barkwill is the co-founder of Horses with Hearts, a nonprofit organization that helps children with disabilities through therapeutic horseback riding.

(Photo provided by Kay Barkwill)

Horses with Hearts was inspired by a young girl named Lindsey Connely, who was diagnosed with a brain tumor when she was very young and met Barkwill while Barkwill was providing respite for her. As Barkwill cared for Connely, she began to ​​fall in love with Connely’s relentless determination to live life to its fullest despite enduring more trauma than most people face in a lifetime. Through their time together, Barkwill learned that Connely wanted to do one thing and one thing only, get back on a horse. Before getting sick, she was an avid rider and loved the time she spent on her horse.

So Barkwill set out to help find a service that would allow Connely to do just that. After much searching and pleading, Barkwill had still not found a way for Connely to ride. Nowhere would take Connely as a rider, she wasn’t strong enough to ride, it would be too expensive; the reasons it would not work kept growing. That’s when Connely told Barkwill that she felt it was her job to do it. But Barkwill gave every excuse she could think of. She felt that she was too old and too inexperienced. That’s when Connely told her, “Miss Kay, when are you going to realize that God doesn’t call on the qualified, He qualifies the called.”

And it was at that moment Barkwill knew that she had to start Horses with Hearts.

Unfortunately, Connely passed away before seeing her dream come to fruition, but her memory lives on at the Horses with Hearts compound.

And while it is tragic for any person to die so young, Barkwill was devastated by Connely’s death. This little girl meant the world to her, and for her life to be cut so short, it felt cruel to Barkwill.

Barkwill puts all her time and energy into making the Horses with Hearts compound a safe and welcoming space for all children, especially those with physical or mental disabilities. Whether it is coming in early on a Saturday morning to repair a broken fence, or banging on the door of every church in town to collect donations, Barkwill is the pulse that keeps Horses with Hearts alive.

Sommy, one of the Horses with Hearts horses. (Photo provided by Kay Barkwill)

She represents Appalachia well. Her drive and tenacity are that of an Appalachian woman, and she continues to push back against stereotypes of Appalachians being lazy. Her organization thrives off of Appalachia’s deep sense of community. Barkwill does not think a nonprofit like this would work anywhere else. She says West Virginians show up for their neighbors, which is what she loves about Appalachia. As for the future, Horses with Hearts continues to grow and does not plan on stopping anytime soon.

It is our intention to become a full-time therapeutic riding program allowing individuals to enjoy and benefit from equine activities 12 months a year. To accomplish this, it is necessary to move forward with the construction of an indoor arena to provide a controlled environment in which to conduct programming year-round.

—Kay Barkwill

You can learn more and even support the Horses with Hearts’ mission by visiting their website.