Name: Amber Henneck Varner
Location: Newberg, OR
Occupation: Executive Director of Forward Stride
In bucolic Missoula, Montana, Amber Varner grew up doting on her aunt’s horses until she was gifted one of her own at age eleven. Ginger, that first horse, became her constant companion and began a stretch of horse ownership that’s gone nearly uninterrupted since then. It’s fair to say that her experience with Ginger launched her down the path to being the person she is today, in charge of Forward Stride, an organization that uses equine therapy to benefit humans and horses alike.
“I wanted to be a veterinarian until I realized they had to put animals to sleep,” Amber recalls. “I wanted to be a marine biologist until I realized I would have a hard time being at sea and owning horses. I wanted to be a pediatrician until I realized they didn’t actually have a chance to get to know the children they treated. I finally decided I wanted to be involved with therapeutic horsemanship during my final year of college. I couldn’t wait to combine my passion for horses with my passion for helping people with disabilities and I have not looked back.”
Forward Stride began when Amber and a group of likeminded people resurrected a similar organization at its nadir. They renamed and reimagined the nonprofit, first as a volunteer group that provided riding lessons to disadvantaged children twice a week. “This passionate group set the stage for us to grow into what we are today: thirty staff members, thirty-five equines, 150 volunteers providing over 200 client service hours per week.”
Today, Forward Stride carries out its mission through seven programs that are divided into three categories: Equestrian Sports, Clinical Services, and Personal Development. By offering volunteering opportunities, equine-centered learning, equine-facilitated psychotherapy services, vocational opportunities, rehabilitation, vaulting and riding, Forward Stride approaches mind, body, and soul wellness through an interconnected series of relationships and activities.
Over time, Forward Stride has encountered many challenges, including the predictably high overhead that the majestic animals bring, moving multiple times, turnover at executive director, and general economic uncertainty.
Amber remains optimistic. “Throughout it all, we have always managed to keep seeing our clients and ensure a happy and healthy herd. Because we are an inclusive center, we encourage everyone to experience our services and also to give back. This makes for a very tight-knit, passionate community.”
There’s always something to do at Forward Stride, and when Amber isn’t working with people in the arena, you can find her training horses, attending to various projects at her desk, executing necessary administrative tasks, or meeting with coworkers and board members to keep them up to speed. In her spare time, she and her daughters enjoy riding and vaulting and spending time together at the barn.
In the future, Amber sees an expansion coming.
“I aim to ensure Forward Stride’s long-term success by growing our donor base and programming, and improving our services through staff education and innovation,” she says.
“I hope to provide my daughters with the same support I was given by my parents to follow my dreams and turn them into a stable living. Sometimes I dream of being eighty and still teaching people how to communicate and enjoy their equine partners. How many people don’t ever want to retire? I am one lucky lady.”
“Make your own community. Surround yourself with others who understand that we all have gifts and we all have challenges. When you are surrounded by people who all have a common goal of lifting one another up, anything is possible and you will always have a shoulder or two to lean on when you are not able to stand alone. In return, be the same support to others whenever you can. You will find more strength than you ever thought you had when you put it to use for others.”
Some excellent advice! For her work with Forward Stride and keeping horses and humans happy, healthy, and in harmony, we think Amber Varner is a very Cool Girl!