Fractured but unbroken

How a former plowhorse found personality and purpose helping kids

Erin Sheets rides Luna as she stands in water. Courtesy of Erin Sheets.

An elementary school-aged girl wearing a purple short-sleeved shirt and grey leggings put on her helmet and made her way to the left side of the indoor riding arena, which is about the size of a football field. She used the railing to guide herself up three steps to an elevated platform and awaited her joyride.

On Monday, Oct. 30, that joyride was Luna, a 25-year-old white Percheron. The girl’s therapist lifted her onto Luna’s back and placed on the horse's tack — which on this particular day was dark purple with scattered unicorns and rainbows.

So off they went. Luna, with her tail just inches off the sand, started on the arena’s north side and bobbed her head as the little girl braced for the trots by gripping the horse's neck. The mare went in figure eights for 15 minutes with occupational therapists on both sides and her handler, Erin Sheets, behind her. This is a typical day on the job for Luna at Children’s TherAplay, where riding horses are used as treatment called hippotherapy for children needing occupational, physical and speech therapy.

Luna stands in her stall at Children’s TherAplay dressed as a unicorn.

Courtesy of Erin Sheets

Luna stands in her stall at Children’s TherAplay dressed as a unicorn.

As for most days at TherAplay, in Carmel, Indiana, two horses work in the arena at once. This held as a 20-year-old Mustang, Giuseppe, walked in and gathered himself at the platform awaiting his patient, a young boy. It just so happens that Giuseppe is one of Luna’s best friends in the entire barn, but Luna pretends she doesn’t like him by pinning her ears back and swiping her legs at him. Despite this, Giuseppe is the only horse Luna will play outdoors with in her free time.

As the two horses free walked, the two children looked for each other throughout the session.

“Hello!” the boy said as he waved toward Luna and the girl in the opposite corner.

“Hi!” she responded.

To these two kids, they’re just enjoying a fun afternoon activity, but they’re also reaping physical and therapeutic benefits from the horses’ movement.

This back-and-forth communication continued over the next few minutes until Luna’s session was over. The therapist lifted the girl off the horse’s back and pulled the helmet off her head as Sheets led Luna back into the barn. Hand in hand, the therapist and girl smiled and giggled on their way back to the prep room.


Luna didn't have a name for the first decade of her life.

As an Amish plowhorse, Luna would pull the antique wood frame of a plow for hours on end. Eventually, due to improper technique and an extreme workload, her body gave out and she broke her withers — a part of the spinal column between the shoulder blades that rises upwards. Luna’s withers do the opposite and are nearly inverted with a dip. She also has three scars on her chest and neck from the work collar that was left on her for long periods.

When working in the fields, Luna barely had a relationship with her owners. The only interactions she had with them was when they came to put her tack on her and put her over the crop. Luna had two babies while working there, but they were taken away from her.

No one truly knows how long she worked there or even her exact age.

Once the break in her withers occurred, Luna couldn’t pull a plow, and she was deemed useless. The family for got rid of her, and she was crammed into a cattle auction.

Sheets got a call from a friend who had been at the auction, saying Sheets had to see the white mare that was left behind.

“I can’t let her go to the slaughter,” Sheets said as she brushed Luna’s mane.

So Luna became a trail horse for the Sheets family, who welcomed her with open arms. Sheets’ mother liked the sound of the name Luna and stuck with it.

“When we first got her, she didn’t have any personality,” Sheets said. “She wasn’t mean, but she was just indifferent to people. She didn’t know any different than work.”

Luna stands in her stall at Children’s TherAplay wearing a purple tack with unicorns and rainbows.

William McDermott

Luna stands in her stall at Children’s TherAplay wearing a purple tack with unicorns and rainbows Oct. 30, 2033.

After being nameless and treated like equipment for so long, Luna struggled to acclimate to life around people and children at first. Sometimes, Sheets would find Luna hiding in the corner of her stall standing with her head down. But after about 2.5 or three years, Luna started to develop her personality and show more emotion.

Sheets, an experienced caretaker who has been around horses since she was six, helped Luna adjust to her new life. She is now a full-time veterinarian tech for Skillman Veterinary Services in Indianapolis. Sheets volunteers at TherAplay on Fridays and occasionally on Mondays to handle horses during sessions, although she said she wishes she could be around more.

Luna was a part of Sheets’ lesson program after she graduated from Franklin College in 2016, and it was Luna’s first exposure to children. In April 2022, Sheets was forced to move her four horses from a barn that was closing, and she needed a place for Luna to stay just as TherAplay was searching for a bigger horse.

Because of her size as a draft horse, Luna has an exaggerated gait and leg rotation, which gives children who need to work on their balance a rockier ride. The movement help disabled children improve sensory processes and neurological functions. And the kids love the bumpiness.

“She really, really enjoys kids,” Sheets says, “It’s always kinda been something that has made her light up as a horse.”

Mares are usually stubborn and pigheaded, Sheets said. But Luna is an exception: level-headed, confident and fearless. Luna wants to be so close to the kids that, as Sheets would say, she could put her head in their pockets. She has a different kind of relationship with children than she does with adults and even Sheets: she just feels closer and more connected with the kids.

Luna’s confidence extends beyond the arena to when she’s in the barn. As Sheets grooms her in the stall with the door open — typically prohibited for horses that aren’t as well-behaved — she keeps trying to nudge her way forward and out in the stalls aisles. She’s on the hunt for food. Likely Pop-Tarts.

The proclaimed foodie loves a good strawberry Pop-Tart from the barn office beside the arena’s entrance.

“She knows that two come in a package so if we only give her one, she will be mad,” Equine Program Manager Kirby Wierda said.

Sheets describes her as a “garbage disposal,” eating anything in her way. The staff will give her bits and pieces of the sugary pastry once or twice a week as a special treat.

Every time Luna is guided into the arena and past the office, she peeks her head in the office, hoping one of her favorite staff members would give her a nibble. To her dismay, she usually fails, but it’s worth a shot, right?

That confidence is a good sign for a hippotherapy horse. Anxious horses have difficulty working with children because of their unpredictable nature.

“She loves the attention,” Sheets said. “I think she truly likes having a job that isn’t hard work, but it gives her that sense of purpose. She truly loves helping these kids, and she can tell if a kid needs a slower pace or needs a little bit more of a relaxing ride.”

Horses and children reap the benefits of hippotherapy. But, while children mostly need it for their physical health, the horses gain a sense of belonging and purpose.


Children’s TherAplay in Carmel, Indiana, sits 2 miles north of Ascension St. Vincent Hospital. It’s a right turn off Town Road and beautiful stables immediately surround the area. Occasionally, when the weather is nice, one of the 14 riding horses may be out in the pen, which spans about 40 yards. Some horses like the pen more than others, but it’s a good way to roam away from their stall and get fresh air freely.

In 2000, a local occupational therapist contacted a man named Craig Dobbs who owned Lucky Farms and had horses aplenty, according to Children’s TherAplay’s website. The therapist asked him if their therapy group could borrow some of his horses to help disabled children through a technique called hippotherapy. In 2001, the two morphed into the non-profit Children’s TherAplay, which for over 22 years has offered disabled kids physical, occupational and speech therapy.

According to the American Hippotherapy Association, hippotherapy was first used as a treatment in the 1960s in Europe; it is a form of equine-assisted therapy, which can provide mental, social and physical benefits. While every patient's case is different, and a treatment plan is specific to what the child needs, some of the broader benefits of hippotherapy are its effect on core strength, balance and paraspinal development.

Luna shows off her new haircut resembling a dinosaur in the indoor riding arena at Children’s TherAplay.

Courtesy of Erin Sheets

Luna shows off her new haircut resembling a dinosaur in the indoor riding arena at Children’s TherAplay.

Thousands of years ago, humans began domesticating horses and forming symbiotic relationships between the two. And it’s the human-to-animal connection that helps make hippotherapy work. Some horses, like Luna, are natural helpers and inclined to find purpose in what they do.

“In general, people love animals,” Carah Sullenbarger, director of therapy services at TherAplay, said. “But I think our kids with disabilities don't always get the privilege to do everything that everyone else gets do. So I think it’s so unique and special that it’s something they can do.”

Sullenbarger said children who receive hippotherapy reach their goals sooner because of the confidence boost patients get.

It can be terrifying for a child to ride a horse for the first time, but as familiarity grows, the bond that builds leads to progress. The horses turn something scary, like “normal therapy” into a part of the children’s routine they look forward too.

“There’s nothing we can do in clinic to replicate what the animal can do,” Sullenbarger said.

Each step the horse takes provides more stimulus inputs, and therefore more benefits, than just a normal session in the clinic. But not every horse can do this job well.

Because of the repetition, the workload in hippotherapy can be difficult for horses. At TherAplay, some horses have been there for 10-plus years, but others get bored or drained from the work and their owners will find other jobs for them.

“Burnout is probably the biggest thing we deal with here,” Wierda says.

On top of this, hippotherapy horses have almost learned to go against their instinctual fears and tendencies to flee when frightened. Luna has perfected this with her patience and love for being around children. Sometimes, children may hit the horses or yell when riding, which horses have to learn to get used to.

“We put them in a lot of situations that I think go against their instincts,” Wierda said. “A lot of our horses, if they get frightened by something, they’re going to want to turn and run. We’ve done a pretty good job teaching them that that’s not an acceptable response to being afraid. That’s an effort the horses have to make.”

With these daily work challenges, horses, like humans who take sick days and get time off, get a break or a week-long vacation away from the barn when needed.


At the entrance door to the arena from the barn, the staff posts a question of the day where handlers can pencil in a name.

“If our horses were celebrities, who would they be?” it read on one colder October afternoon.

Luna, of course, was Jennifer Coolidge, an actress known for her wit and sass.

A framed photo of Luna posing by a painting she made sits in the barn office at Children’s TherAplay.

William McDremott

A framed photo of Luna posing by a painting she made sits in the barn office at Children’s TherAplay in Carmel, Indiana, Oct. 12, 2023.

Now, Luna may not be an Emmy winner like Coolidge, but she still finds ways to express her inner artistry and creativity.

Early last fall, she used acrylic paint to create a stunning sunset and tie-dye-like canvas. The canvas was placed in a Ziploc bag with paint splattered inside and treats (including Pop-Tarts) on top. Luna painted by smearing the paint underneath through the bag and eating the treats. The framed painting sold at an auction for $415.

“It’s a work of art,” Sophie Schafer, one of the handlers, interjected.

“It is a work of art,” Wierda echoed. “They’re artists.”

Sometimes, Luna finds herself on the other end and becomes the canvas herself. When children are allowed arts and crafts in the barn during the summer, Luna’s white-haired coat makes her the perfect canvas for finger painting. The attention gives her a boost of energy. She doesn’t mind the few days it takes to wash the coloring out of her hair.


One day, Luna was preparing to give a ride to a new patient who couldn’t speak very well, Sheets said. The girl, visibly anxious, was nervous to meet Luna on the platform.

After the first session ended, Luna sank her forehead into the chest of her new friend, allowing the standing girl to wrap her arms around her and hold her head. Everything was going to be okay, as long as Luna was there.

Marissa Meador

By Marissa Meador

Marissa has worked at the IDS since 2022 and currently serves as a managing editor. Email Twitter

Jacob Spudich

Photos by Jacob Spudich

Jacob has been at the IDS since 2021 and has been a reporter, photographer and editor. Email

Rahul Suresh Ubale

Design and development by Rahul Suresh Ubale

Rahul has worked at the IDS since 2023 and currently holds the position of Developer Lead at IDS. Email