Dark storm clouds rumble off to the west, pushing cooler air into the Bit by Bit barn as Jake, 13, brushes his friend Sam.
He moves from side to side, lightly brushing the palomino before switching brushes to take care of Sam's mane. It's quiet other than the whirring from box fans blowing into nearby horse stalls. There's also the staff and his parents from time to time saying, "You're doing good, Jake."
This is a rare opportunity for Jake, who has a disability and has taken part in the Bit by Bit equine therapy program for seven years. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he and more than 70 other students with disabilities had to halt taking part in the weekly riding lessons this spring.
"They're not allowed in the barn during lessons, so they'll ask all the time, 'Where do they sleep? What's back there? What do they do?'" says Bit By Bit Executive Director Lindsey Barron. "Now, we're using this as an opportunity to let them back there and let them see where their horses stay and all the work that goes into it to keep them ready."
Bit by Bit is a nonprofit that has been in operation since 1997. It started in Claremore before relocating to Oologah, where students from Tulsa, Broken Arrow and all over northeast Oklahoma normally do lessons in an indoor arena.
"We've had a lot of parents tell us, whether emotionally or physically that the kids have regressed not having lessons every week on top of all of their therapies, not being in school, not being around their teachers and their friends," says Barron. "If they're in a wheelchair 24 hours a day, getting on a horse and having that movement helps their core strength. If they have weakness in the right hand, they do a lot of strength lessons and stuff like that."
After Jake finishes brushing Sam, he moves on to clean the horse's stall. After a few tries, he has the shoveling down and has cleaned the area.
Barron says operations have been hit hard in numerous ways since the COVID-19 pandemic reached northeast Oklahoma in March. The more than 150 volunteers are mainly from the older population that is a part of the vulnerable population, so they cannot walk the riders and horses.
"Boots, BBQ and Boogie," the biggest annual fundraiser held at Cain's Ballroom, was canceled in May. Barron says it generates up to $80,000 a year. She says they hope to do their annual pumpkin patch in October to help raise funds.
"We're just trying to find ways to survive a total shutdown just like everyone else is doing. There's so many nonprofits out there that do so much good that, you know, you feel bad, being like, 'Oh, give it to us.' But at the same time, I'm like, 'Hey!'" says Barron. "Our biggest fundraiser not happening has been our biggest hit, and we didn't make any money off lessons, so that's not good. It was a huge financial impact not having the second semester."
Bit by Bit follows the Oologah School District academic calendar, so when classes were shut down, so was their program. The annual spring horse show and awards ceremony also had to be canceled.
"We always have a horse show at the end of the year where they do it for their parents who all get to come in and watch," says Barron. "They get to show off what they've learned all year. Everyone looks forward to it, and they look forward to getting the ribbon. We didn't get to do that this year. So it was just a very abrupt ending. We didn't get to say goodbye to them. We didn't know when we left for spring break that was it. It was hard."
After he has completed his duties, Jake is awarded a ribbon and gifts for his work. He then writes a message to his friend Sophie on the barn's dry erase board. The students have not seen each other since March, but he wants his friend to know he says hello.
The summer is typically a down time for Bit by Bit, but this year they are looking for new ways to offer students access to the equine therapy program. For the children who are required to stay at home, Barron says they've taken horses to their houses to let them see them.
"We've just been trying to find ways to keep the riders involved, keep the volunteers involved," Barron says. "Back at the first week in June, we did a horse parade where people drove by in their vans, so the kiddos could see all the horses and pet their friends. We're just trying to find different creative ways since they can't ride yet."
Barron says she does not know what the future holds for the program in terms of resuming in the fall. The Oologah School District is still working on an updated academic calendar.
"We sent out a survey and everyone is ready to come back," says Barron. "They are like, 'We'll side walk so you don't need as many volunteers. We'll do whatever we need to do to kind of get back into it.' That feels good. We're staying in touch with them to let them know we're trying."
Jake has finished his work in the barn, and it's time to go home. He says goodbye to Sam then to the staff.
"I love everybody," he says.
For more information on Bit by Bit, including how to help, click here.