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.
On Saturday, April 15, Petaluma’s Fabulous Women will host a family-friendly day of music, food (and horses!) as a big Spring fundraiser for Giant Steps Therapeutic Equestrian Center. Envisioned as a community potluck and picnic, participants are encouraged to bring a salad or appetizer, and be ready to purchase the main course and dessert. Police Chief Ken Savano will be grilling hotdogs and sausages for sale, and there will be a dessert auction later in the day. Along with live music and inspirational stories from some of Giant Steps’ clients – who will be present with several of the non-profit’s therapy horses – there will be an Easter egg hunt, live music balloon art, face painting, and more. A BiCi bicycle will be raffled off alongside an array of other enticing items and experiences. All proceeds benefit Giant Steps’ scholarship program.
What? Community Celebration and potluck to benefit Giant Steps
When? Saturday, April 15, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Where? Petaluma Athletic Club, 85 Old Corona Rd.
How much? Admission is free. Bringing an appetizer or salad to share would be appreciated. Do bring cash to purchase hot dogs and sausages, beer and other beverages, and a checkbook or credit card to participate in auction and raffle events.