Aging horses and pandemic losses threaten future of Poway Therapeutic Equestrian Center



In 2014, three horse-loving friends who volunteered together at local therapeutic equestrian centers realized their shared dream and started their own center in Poway called Ride Above Disability. He teaches riders aged 3 to 60 with autism, epilepsy, cerebral palsy, Rett syndrome, Down syndrome and chromosome deletion syndrome.

What started seven years ago with just two horses and 16 students gradually grew into a thriving organization with 10 horses and 65 students in March 2020. Then came the pandemic, which devastated the centre’s finances. Then, on his heels, a second challenge: the aging of horses. In recent months, veterinary bills have barely exceeded the income that Ride Above Disability is learning from.

Program Director Allie Sarnataro said she and her RAD co-founders, Equine Director Katie Cram and Executive Director Wayne Jackson, are planning multiple fundraisers this fall, and they’ve created a wishlist on Amazon for everything from hoof ointment to student riding helmets. But one thing they haven’t done yet is raise the price of the classes, which hasn’t changed in six years, as many of the ranch’s long-term students might not be able to afford to keep coming. .

“We never thought we would have to deal with this in our careers,” said Sarnataro, who also oversees RAD’s volunteer program. “It was definitely a learning experience. “

Instructor Rebecca Palter helps 5-year-old student Ellie ride a horse at the non-profit Ride Above Disability Therapeutic Riding Center, which offers lessons for children and adults with developmental disabilities.

(Ariana Drehsler / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Sarnataro, Cram, and Jackson met about 10 years ago as volunteers for the Therapeutic Riding Program at the Helen Woodward Animal Clinic in Rancho Santa Fe. While working there and other centers across the county, Sarnataro said they came up with ideas for their own unique riding program, which would allow siblings and parents of students to take lessons, include riding training, and focus more on skills and strength. training only on the individual handicaps of the pupils.

RAD’s primary instructor is Rebecca Palter, who is certified by the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH). Prior to joining RAD in 2016, she worked as a caregiver for a child with brain injury and worked in the field of neuroscience researching treatments for children with brain injury. But she became frustrated with the slowness of her research and was eager to be more active in helping children with special needs. Tears fill Palter’s eyes as she talks about the milestones her students have taken in their classes. A 4-year-old girl who had been non-verbal in all of her lessons for the past two years unexpectedly said goodbye to Palter as she left the ranch on Wednesday.

“We don’t know for sure how these things happen, but the rules here are different and these kids react to them,” Palter said. “Normally people with disabilities are treated with contempt, but here they are above everyone else on horseback and they are in control. Horseback riding puts them at the center of things.

Each student’s lessons are tailored to the goals their families want them to achieve. For many riders, this can involve working on core strength, confidence, emotional control, and positive social interactions. For more advanced riders, this may involve developing better motor and physical skills so that they can ride independently or participate in horse jumping and gymkhana (pattern racing) shows.

Haley Contreras and Allie Sarnataro at the Ride Above Disability Therapeutic Riding Center in Poway.

Haley Contreras, left, prepares for her riding lesson while speaking with Allie Sarnataro, program director and volunteer manager at Ride Above Disability Therapeutic Riding Center in Poway.

(Ariana Drehsler / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Since many students have been coming to RAD for four years or more, Cram said her challenge as an Equine Director is to build a herd of horses suitable for students of all ages and skill levels. Dixie is a 16 year old Norwegian fjord horse that sits low to the ground for smaller students, but can also carry heavy riders. She is also calm enough that even if a student had a major pain attack in her back, she wouldn’t be afraid. Bai is a 6 year old retired thoroughbred racehorse who is gentle but well suited to more independent riders. Then there’s McKenna, a 26-year-old quarter horse / Arab mix who has only been used for easy lessons with young riders since she nears retirement.

Cram said horses typically burn out after three to four years, so RAD’s horses never take more than two lessons a day to extend their working life. But eventually they grow old, like Poppy, a 20-year-old Welsh pony who will retire at the end of this month to a pasture in Ramona. To replace retirees like Poppy, Cram recently bought two new horses: Cody, 7, and Clark, 9, who arrived in July from a ranch in Arizona. They are now in training to see if they have the right temperament for the job.

Because many of RAD’s horses are older, Cram said their medical and food costs are high. In order to reduce the risk of horses developing Cushing’s disease, a common pituitary gland problem in older horses, RAD buys them a more expensive low-sugar feed. Older horses also need regular treatment with medication to reduce inflammation in cartilage and joints, so they will never need daily pain relievers.

The headquarters of the Ride Above Disability Therapeutic Riding Center in Poway.

The headquarters of the Ride Above Disability Therapeutic Riding Center in Poway.

(Ariana Drehsler / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

RAD rents land from the Rolling Hills Boarding Stables, which is located across the street at 15529 Sycamore Canyon Road in Poway. RAD offers classes to students five days a week, with Sundays and Mondays reserved for classes and volunteer training. Lessons for students who need extra support last 30 minutes, while lessons for more advanced independent riders last 45 minutes. Students who have difficulty sitting on their horses need an instructor and up to three volunteers. Weekly classes cost students around $ 48 each, with the rest covered by grants and donations.

RAD’s annual budget is approximately $ 193,000, which covers the cost of horses and their care, three full-time and three part-time employees. Jackson, a veteran of the Marines, earns no salary. Lately, Sarnataro said, the center has barely hit breakeven due to an increase in vet bills over the past six months. Because the money was tight, the center was unable to make any improvements to its property. He needs a new arena, a new horse trailer and he could use a flush toilet, as well as new office equipment, she said.

Due to the pandemic, the RAD has canceled its fundraisers in 2020, but this fall it will host a series of events to raise funds for veterinary bills and the like. In October, Sarnataro said she was planning an open house and chili cuisine. In November, they will have a vacation photoshoot where families can pose with the horses. And in December, there will be an online auction. For more details, visit

Alycia Brewer, an intern at Ride Above Disability Therapeutic Riding Center in Poway, cleans Dixie, a Norwegian fjord horse.

Alycia Brewer, an intern at the Ride Above Disability Therapeutic Riding Center in Poway, cleans the hooves of Dixie, a Norwegian fjord horse.

(Ariana Drehsler / The San Diego Union-Tribune)



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