A helping hoof | TheUnion.com

A helping hoof

It was in the late 1970s when close friend and horseman Jack Huyler loaned us a video from the Cheff Center in Michigan. Jack had recently visited there and was inspired and in awe of the farsighted and wonderful therapeutic riding program being developed.

Patient horses had been trained not to fear being bumped by wheelchairs or occasionally hit in the head by basketballs as their riders shoot hoops. Children who could not walk were enabled to ride through the woods. Others suffering from autism actually would begin talking – to their horses.

Earlier therapeutic programs had been formed in Europe, inspired by polio victim Liz Hartel of Denmark, who rehabilitated herself from wheelchair to horse, later capturing the silver medal in dressage at the Helsinki Olympics. The Cheff Center is one of the first such centers in the United States and Canada.

The North American Riding for the Handicapped Association, known as NAHRA, was formed in 1969. Since then, NAHRA has served more than 35,000 individuals with disabilities. It is estimated that nearly 6,000 special horses are currently doing their part to provide therapy in movement and exercise and are providing a way for someone who is unable to walk to see the world from a different perspective. People of all ages – with a wide variety of physical, emotional, or cognitive disabilities – have demonstrated marked improvement. Standards are high, with trained instructors, volunteers, and horses making this equine activity unique.

It is of special note that Grass Valley Life Scout, Garrett Duncan of Venture Crew 855, took on an Eagle project to help a riding-for-the-handicapped program. His love and interest in horses, discovered first at a Scout camp experience, led him to research his project and design and build a loading platform to assist in mounting wheelchair riders onto their horses. The nonprofit Horses For Healing, headquartered at Stage Stop Stables in Auburn, was in desperate need of such a structure to use in combination with their wheelchair ramp. Garrett drew up plans and arranged for Diamond Pacific to donate the lumber and materials. He then gathered together volunteers to rebuild the ramp to specifications and created the platform. In addition to a substantial sum donated for the materials, Garrett and his crew have volunteered over 50 hours building the project. Garrett worked with Horses for Healing President Richard Walker to design the platform and redo the ramp: “I came out to see what the situation was, how to build and where to put it. I took this ramp (the one that had been in use) as an example of what I could do to make things last longer under the stresses they’re under – we have pressure-treated 4×6’s for skids -everything is pretty substantial. It’s built to last.”

On the NAHRA Web site – http://www.nahra.org – a similar portable ramp and platform is available for over $2,500.

Seventeen-year-old Garrett is spending this summer at the Wente Scout camp near Willets as head wrangler. He understands how important horses can be in helping anyone psychologically and physically, whether they are handicapped or fully able to participate in this demanding sport.

The Horses for Healing Therapeutic Riding Center – http://www.horsesforhealing.org – was founded in 1997 by Norma Harris of Christian Valley, whose sisters suffer from multiple sclerosis. Early on, the nonprofit organization of volunteers served mostly adults, but it now serves numerous children, as well. Stage Stop, a full-service horse facility, gives them the use of their indoor arena on Tuesdays and Fridays and space for an office.

In Grass Valley, we are fortunate to have Saddle Pals, affiliated with United Cerebral Palsy of Greater Sacramento Saddle Pals, an NARHA Premier Accredited Center. They meet at Blue Fountain Farm on Mondays.

Coordinator Marlene Hayes says that in order for one disabled person to ride, it takes a specially schooled horse, a horse handler, two volunteers to be side-bys and a trained instructor.

Most clients ride one-on-one, or really one-to-five if you include the horse! More advanced and able riders at times may ride together. Most sessions last about an hour. Saddle Pals also has a volunteer coordinator and an equine coordinator, who schedule activities for some 30 volunteers and horses suitable for the program each week.

A lot of effort and planning is necessary to fulfill accreditation requirements and match volunteers and horses with participants. Most clients are referred by their physicians. Riders, depending on individual requirements, are challenged to learn about horses and their care in addition to riding skills. They learn coordination, sensory processing, neurological functions, how to follow instructions, to practice safety, and to benefit from the motion and movement of the horse. Developing physical fitness in such an enjoyable activity is key, as are empathy with, and responsiveness to, the horse.

Volunteers, too, find the program to be very rewarding. Louise Beesley, former librarian for Nevada Union High School, is among those dedicated to making the Saddle Pals program possible for local persons challenged by disabilities.

Further information may be obtained by calling 274-8744. Most centers, such as Horses for Healing and Saddle Pals, are nonprofit and welcome donations of time, money, horses, tack, supplies or equipment.


Felicia Schaps Tracy is the owner of Emigrant Springs Horsemanship, co-founding instructor of Northern Mines Pony Club, member and Certified Horsemanship Association and the American Riding Instructors Association. Write her in care of The Union, 464 Sutton Way, Grass Valley 95945.

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