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Riding high at Petaluma non-profit

Whether it’s watching a rider who’s been working hard to tie a knot in their reins, or a rider who’s been learning how to say ‘whoa’ to make their horse stop, it’s witnessing those clients achieving such goals that is most rewarding to the staff at Giant Steps Therapeutic Equestrian Center.

“It gives me shivers and it makes me so happy to be a witness, and to be part of that,” said volunteer Cecily Upton, during a recent day out at the Giant Steps facility in Petaluma. “It’s those little things that I find the most magical. When you volunteer here, you have to be really present and engaged, so you really notice those little things - and they become really big things here.”

Founded in 1998 by Robert Pope and Lee Justice, Giant Steps is a non-profit program focused on the belief that riding and caring for horses can be a life-changing tool. That’s especially true for individuals living with disabilities, whether physical, cognitive or emotional. As Executive Director Beth Porter explained last week - speaking from her office in Massachusetts - the program’s mission is to enrich and change the lives of children and adults with disabilities, through therapeutic riding and equine-assisted therapy.

“Working with horses,” she said, “can have extraordinary benefits.”

Giant Steps is located at Sonoma Horse Park, covering 2.85 acres of the Lakeville Highway property. The program serves clients with autism spectrum disorder, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome and other disabilities, with the ultimate goal being to improve health outcomes and independence of those children and adults. According to Porter, who’s worked at Giant Steps since 2011, around 125 clients visit the facility each week, with riders ranging from ages 4 to 88.

Giant Steps formally offers two types of programs - Therapeutic Riding and Equine Facilitated Learning (EFL). Therapeutic riding consists of mounted riding lessons taught by certified therapeutic riding instructors. EFL - also known as “ground work” – is defined as unmounted lessons with a riding instructor and a licensed mental health professional.

In addition, military programs are offered to veterans dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder, along with victims of military sexual trauma, and families of military personnel deployed from Travis Air Force Base. According to Porter, these clients participate in a mix of mounted lessons and ground work.

The Giant Steps team is diverse.

The human staff includes roughly six full-time employees and eight hourly instructors. Currently, 14 horses work at Giant Steps, which hires a variety of breeds, sizes, and physical and emotional traits. In addition, 125 individuals volunteer for one-week-periods. These range from middle school and high school students who love horses or are working on community service hours, to full-time employees who used to ride or simply love being outside.

Upton, a retired 45-year old who lives in San Francisco, volunteers at Giant Steps twice a week. She started volunteering back in 2007. After about three years, she went back to work in marketing, before returning to Giant Steps in 2014. Throughout her last three years of volunteer service, she’s been fortunate enough to work with the same group of riders, which she notes has allowed her to build a nice relationship with them.

Typically, Upton works with adult riders. During class, she always leads the horse herself, while simultaneously encouraging and assisting the rider. She also tacks, grooms and warms-up the horse. Although Upton said she truly loves all the horses, she admitted she does have a personal favorite.

“Darren’s definitely my special guy,” she gushed, talking about the 21-year-old Quarter Horse she’s worked with since 2014. “I don’t know what it is about him. He doesn’t really like to be groomed. He’s very sensitive. And I just adore him.”

Giant Steps, even with so many dedicated volunteers, counts on community support to continue it’s mission. On April 15, The Fabulous Women - a local group dedicated to supporting meaningful causes - is hosting a fundraiser for the non-profit’s scholarship program.

Julie Larson, Giant Steps’ Program Director, admitted it’s wonderful having another organization’s support.

“We never turn anyone away for lack of being able to pay for services,” said Larson, who’s worked at Giant Steps since 2009. “This fundraiser is really huge and important, because [it will help] give riding lessons to people who may otherwise not be able to pay.”

The April 15 event (see sidebar) will help support clients like 9-year-old Lilly Biagini, who started riding in July 2015. Though both of the girl’s legs are amputated above the knee, Larson said Biagini doesn’t function any differently than a typical 9 or 10 year-old.

“She has been such a rock star, and has this spirit of being able to do anything,” Larson said of Biagini, who attends Giant Steps once a week and rides without her prosthetics. “She rides the horse beautifully and has come a long way. She’s gained a lot of confidence.”

For Executive Director Porter, the most rewarding aspect of working at Giant Steps is simply making a difference in so many people’s lives, a goal shared by everyone who works there.

“It’s not necessarily just the riders’ lives, it’s their families’ lives,” Porter said. “One rider took his first steps at Giant Steps. He wasn’t supposed to be able to walk - and his mom, of course, burst into tears and said that it’s not just changing his life, but his entire family’s life. We’ve had riders speak their first words. If you’re ever having a down day, just go out there, and your heart will feel lighter.”

For more information, take a small step toward Giant Steps’ website at Giantstepsriding.org

(E-mail Nicole at argus@arguscourier.com)

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