Morgan Hill couple formed nonprofit while seeking a purpose in life

Children and adults interact with horses at One Step Closer as part of a therapeutic process. A fundraiser will be held June 25 at Coyote Ranch. Photos courtesy of OSC

By Marty Cheek

Landa Keirstead embarked on a remarkable journey in October 2006. Driven by an unwavering passion to bring the transformative benefits of equine therapy to South Valley, she and her husband, Mark, founded One Step Closer to provide therapeutic horseback riding to children and veterans.

With boundless determination, the Keirsteads’ vision has blossomed into a beacon of hope, empowering individuals to overcome physical, emotional, and psychological obstacles. Today, the Morgan Hill-based nonprofit stands as a testament of their unwavering commitment to enriching countless lives and creating a lasting legacy of healing.

After working in dentistry for more than three decades, Keirstead felt a calling for something more meaningful than working on people’s teeth.

“I wanted to leave the dental field, but I really didn’t know what God’s plan was for me,” she said. “We still had kids who relied on my income. Mark and I were sitting around one night and I told him, ‘I don’t know. I’m feeling really pulled.’”

During a poker ride with friends in Woodside, she discovered the benefits horseback riding can give to people in need. It was a fundraiser for an equine therapy nonprofit. The experience sparked her interest and led her to volunteer to learn more.

Guided by her faith and a sense of purpose, Keirstead delved deeper into equine therapy, realizing its tremendous potential. With the support of Joe Gonzales who owned Calero Ranch Stables, a riding program and horse camping for kids, she began providing equine therapy.

“Joe gracefully allowed me to start my program up at Calero,” she said. “He’s a roughy gruffy kind of guy. But he also loved kids and he also loved people with disabilities, people who need a little leg up. He believed in what I do.”

Photos courtesy of OSC
Children and adults interact with horses at One Step Closer as part of a therapeutic process.

Landa became a certified therapeutic riding instructor with PATH (Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship) International and now dedicates her time to improving the lives of others through equine therapy. For children, the sensory integration provided by horseback riding aids in focusing and learning, while the nonprofit’s school readiness program helps bridge the gap for those seeking integration into mainstream education. Many children have experienced breakthroughs, uttering their first words in the nurturing environment of One Step Closer. The program’s emphasis on fun and enjoyable learning, combined with the therapeutic benefits of horse movement, creates a supportive space for growth and development.

When it comes to veterans, many of whom struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder, the horses at One Step Closer play a pivotal role in their healing journey. Through relationships built on trust and honesty, the veterans learn to reconnect and find their way back to a fulfilling life, Landa said. The horses provide a mirror for the veterans, nudging them to confront their trust issues and find strength in vulnerability.

Children and adults interact with horses at One Step Closer as part of a therapeutic process. Photo courtesy of OSC

“What the horses do for those individuals is based on relationships. It basically helps them learn how to trust again. They have to trust a thousand-pound animal who doesn’t lie,” Landa said. “Many vets have told me that they come holding back because of trust issues — and the horses can see right through them. The horse kind of nudges them as if to say, ‘What’s your deal?’ They get honest feedback from the horse. It’s really just amazing how they start to find their way back.”

Equine therapy helps veterans improve communication skills and manage anger and emotional triggers, offering a safe space for practice and growth, she said. By embracing natural horsemanship and relinquishing the dominance mindset ingrained in military training, veterans can heal emotionally and rediscover their true selves.

The physical aspect of equine therapy is equally remarkable. From strength training to helping those with core weaknesses or paraplegia learn to ambulate, the program promotes physical strength and rehabilitation. Some veterans benefit from the upper body strength required to mount and ride the horses, defying the limitations imposed on them by others. Equine therapy harnesses the brain’s neuroplasticity, facilitating healing through movement and providing individuals with a renewed sense of possibility.

The Keirsteads collaborate with other organizations like Operation Freedom Paws, which focuses on providing canine therapy to their clients.

“We’ve got some amazing folks in town doing some great things, and we want to be a part of that,” Landa said.

OSC has also started partnering with Hope Services to develop work readiness for that nonprofit’s clients, young adults with developmental disabilities, Mark said. They volunteer to take care of horses at OSC’s facility, thus developing their job skills.

“We’re really pleased we can be part of somebody’s life to help them be more independent, employable, and able to take care of themselves,” Mark said.

Over the years, One Step Closer has received recognition for its work. It was chosen as the 2020 Non-Profit of the Year by the Morgan Hill Chamber of Commerce. It received the Special Education Recognition Award from the San Jose Unified School District, the Local Heroes Award from Bank of America, and it was voted Best Horse Riding Center in Morgan Hill in 2015.

Families unable to afford tuition may receive partial scholarships. One Step Closer relies upon corporate and individual contributions, grants, and fundraising proceeds to cover expenses.

The Keirsteads invite the community to join them at the picturesque Coyote Ranch for One Step Closer’s summer fundraising barbecue and auction. With the scenic backdrop of Coyote Valley, attendees can contribute to the growth of this life-changing program, ensuring that children and veterans receive the vital support they need, Mark said.

This is the first fundraiser for the nonprofit since 2019 after COVID-19 put it on hold for three years, he said. The Country Cougars will entertain by donating their music to the cause. Tickets are $75 a person with a maximum of 150 sold.

The Keirsteads and the volunteers at One Step Closer remain committed to making a positive impact on the lives of their clients.

“Our mission is to bring hope, healing, and a sense of belonging to individuals in need, while inspiring others to join the remarkable journey of equine-assisted therapy,” Landa said.