Saddle Pals works miracles every Monday |

Saddle Pals works miracles every Monday

Fun will be front and center and back in the saddle for Pumpkins and Ponies next Saturday, an event that promises to be a day well spent, according to United Cerebral Palsy Saddle Pals Grass Valley Program Manager Jane de’Zell.

The event will include live music, a barbecue, raffle prizes, live and silent auctions, a costume contest and, of course, lots of equine events.

Pumpkins and Ponies is Saddle Pals’ annual fundraising effort on behalf of its participating students.

With the crash of the economy and all state funding for Saddle Pals having been discontinued, Saturday’s event is crucial to the stability and longevity of the therapeutic program, de’Zell said.

Saddle Pals serves participants ranging in age from 4 to 60-plus who suffer from developmental or acquired disabilities such as autism, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, traumatic brain injuries and blindness.

“We found ourselves in a position where we were going to be losing students because they could not afford to be able to ride,” de’Zell said. “Unfortunately, we can’t provide a free program, because of the expense, but the community has been really generous in helping to support this endeavor.”

According to its website, the Grass Valley chapter of the Saddle Pals program promotes “growth, independence and improved quality of life for riders, helping them to develop a bond with the horse, learn responsibilities associated with riding and animal care and expand their knowledge and skills in a fun, supportive environment.”

“It’s a wide range of folks that we provide services to,” de’Zell said. “Currently, we have 14 students and over 50 volunteers.”

The organization started meeting on Mondays in 1996, with de’Zell joining as a volunteer in 2001 and taking over the directorship in 2009.

“I started out bringing my personal horse, which was very suitable for use as a therapeutic horse, and I decided I really liked it,” de’Zell said. “I went from that, to getting certified as a registered therapeutic riding instructor. As of last year, I ended up taking the position of director.”

De’Zell’s role includes coordinating the efforts of volunteers, staff and students.

“The most important thing that I am responsible for is safety,” she said. “The safety of everybody, the students, the volunteers and the horses.”

Horses in the Saddle Pals’ stable have names like Buddy, Calli, Chelsea, Jimmie, Solo and Winnie and it’s de’Zell’s job to make sure students are matched with the appropriate mare or gelding.

It’s not easy to explain what one volunteer has dubbed the “miracles that happen on Mondays.”

Students are taught how to ride and care for their animals, advancing social and verbalization skills, strength, balance, coordination and self-confidence. The connection that develops between students and horses is not always easy to define.

“It’s very empowering for students to be able to ride a horse and control the animal’s activities,” de’Zell said. “I’ve had students who have lived their entire lives in a wheelchair, learn how to be up on a horse, guiding a 1,000-pound animal and it’s made a huge difference in how they view the world.

“We have one boy who came to the program and was not verbal, but now talks to his horse and has become very verbal,” she continued. “We had an autistic student who was with us for many years and initially was terrified of getting on a horse, but got past that and got to the point where he rode quite well and eventually began studying the different breeds and writing poems about horses. The transformation that we see can be pretty amazing.”

The students are not the only ones to benefit from Saddle Pals. The volunteers also prosper.

“I tell the volunteers that the program is good for your heart,” de’Zell said. “Physically, because we do a lot of walking, and emotionally, because the smiles you see from the students can sometimes almost bring tears to your eyes. If we didn’t have our volunteers, we wouldn’t have a program.”

Ponies and Pumpkins will give students the chance to show off the riding skills that they’ve learned, including freestyle riding to music, vaulting, trotting and obstacle-course riding. There will also be demonstrations such as draught horses pulling large wagons, miniatures pulling tiny carts and a reining exhibition.

Students typically are responsible for about half the tuition fee, but the overhead and care of the horses is considerable when accounting for things like feed, shoes and veterinary care, de’Zell said.

Pumpkins and Ponies gives Nevada Country residents the opportunity to partake in the festivities while helping subsidize the participation of both students and horses for the coming year. De’Zell is also hoping to see the scope of the program expanded in the coming days.

“One of the things that I’m really excited about is a Horses for Heroes program, which will be for returning war veterans who have suffered either a physical injury or perhaps combat stress syndrome,” de’Zell said. “We will be matching them up and working them with horses. We’re in the planning stages now.”

Registration for Pumpkins and Ponies starts at 9 a.m. with activities set to begin at 10 a.m., lasting until late afternoon. The event is conducted on a ranch outside Grass Valley, at 17761 Grizzly Bear Dr..

Tom Kellar is a freelance writer living in Cedar Ridge.

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