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San Diego Animal Center Offers Therapeutic Riding Program

For Gretchen Davis, horseback riding is more than a recreational activity: It’s a treatment option that helps people with disabilities become stronger, healthier and more independent.

Davis is program manager of the therapeutic riding program at Helen Woodward Animal Center, where she teaches kids and adults with autism, muscular disorders and other conditions to ride specially trained horses.

Davis, 41, of Escondido, grew up in the City Heights in San Diego, and graduated from Herbert Hoover High School in 1992. From an early age, she gravitated to horses.

She began riding at a barn in Bonita at age 12, and showed on the local hunter/jumper circuit. At age 18, she started teaching campers and beginning students, and as a college student she rode dressage and cross country, and joined her school’s Intercollegiate Horse Show Association. She went onto a career in various barns, doing instruction and horse care.

After she began volunteering at the animal center, she earned a certification in therapeutic horsemanship, and took with job at the center in 2009. She discusses the healing benefits of horses.

Q: Please describe what you do.

A: I teach horseback riding to children and adults with special needs and coordinate the other instructors, barn staff, horses and volunteers.

Q: What are the different types of conditions or disabilities that your riders deal with?

A: We service clients with a wide range of disabilities, and it changes as new riders come in. Some of these include: Autism Spectrum Disorder, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, Down’s syndrome, Fragile X, global development delay, learning disabilities, personality disorders, dyspraxia, sensory integration/processing dysfunction, and hearing and visual impairments.

Q: How does riding help those students, emotionally, physically or educationally?

A: For students with low muscle tone, riding is a fun and engaging way to increase strength, particularly in the core as you move with the horse’s movement. For those with very tight muscles, the motion of the horse can help relax the muscles. Also, the movement of the horse at the walk mirrors our own, so riders working on increasing mobility can get the benefits of building upper body balance and core strength. Emotionally, the horse is a wonderful and forgiving companion for students who have difficulty with impulse control, emotional outbursts, or with mainstream social interactions.

Q: How do you select the horses?

A: Acquiring the right horse is one of our biggest challenges. Many wonderful riding horses, for one reason or another, are not suited to be therapeutic riding horses. The center leases the majority of its horses, meaning the owners lend the horse to us for a period of time and we provide all their daily feed and care. This gives us the peace of mind that the horse will have a good, loving home to return to once they are done in our program. Sometimes this happens after a couple of years, but many of our current horses have been in the program for several years. On average, our horses need to be between 14 and 16 hands high, although sometimes we do accept horses smaller than that. They need to be physically sound (able to move freely, with an even step), as well as be gentle, easy-going, and have a good general training background. It’s very important to us that a horse feels comfortable at our facility and with the job they are being asked to do.

Q: What is the next step for your organization?

A: The program is currently looking to add a few more horses. Once we do, we hope to bring in additional students and help to shorten our very long waiting list. Right now, the program runs five and a half days a week. We are looking forward to offering six full days a week once we have the additional horses and staff in place. The center overall is also currently running a capital campaign to help improve and expand the overall facilities, including the adoptions kennels and animal care areas.

Q: What is most rewarding about your job?

A: The two things that stand out most are the wonderful people I get to work with (staff and volunteers), and that moment when a student achieves something they didn’t think they could before. It could be maintaining their own balance while the horse is in motion, or it could be getting the correct canter lead, it doesn’t matter. Those moments are awesome.

Q: What are your tips for people looking into riding lessons for themselves or their children?

A: Go observe some lessons before you commit. If you see or hear things that make you uncomfortable, trust your instincts. Look for horses that seem comfortable and healthy, and students that appear to enjoy their lesson, and are safe. And see if you think the instructor’s personality meshes with yours. If you are very eas- going, and the instructor seems more goal-oriented, or vice versa, it may not be a good fit.

Q: What’s the best advice you ever received?

A: From my grandma, Janie: Treat people like you would want to be treated.

Q: What is one thing people would be surprised to find out about you?

A: For some reason, people are always surprised to learn that my husband is a Methodist pastor. I’m not sure what that says about me, that folks are surprised that I’m a pastor’s wife! Ha, ha!

Q: Please describe your ideal San Diego weekend.

A: There’s so many awesome things to do in San Diego County, you could easily spend a month of weekends doing all my “SD ideals,” but let’s see ... Saturday morning at the beach (Pacific Beach or maybe Mission Bay), a winning Padre game Saturday evening, and Sunday in Julian — with apple pie, of course!