( Horses for healing ) Where I grew up on a farm in West Virginia, we had a lot of animals: cows, pigs, chickens and horses. I thought I knew something about horses. I’d been riding bareback from the time I could hold on to a mane. This week, Mr. Know-it-all got his comeuppance.

 According to a young man so well versed with his knowledge of the subject that he may have a great future as a consultant on human/equine psychology.

 I sought to find out what happens behind the high chain-link fence, around a large compound on the left side of the road at the south end of Girard Street, in the southern section of Hemet in Riverside County.

 An eddy of dust erupted from the dry, unpaved, short driveway leading into the parking area. The air soon cleared and I found myself exposed to a bright fall vista with fenced corrals and pens. Inside the compound is known simply as T.H.E. CENTER, I discovered a virtual playground for young horsemen.

 Miguel Sarasa introduced himself and related that he would be the person I came to interview. He more resembled a young model in G.Q. Magazine, or college freshman, then someone so knowledgeable about his role in a vast equine center for handicapped youngsters. 

 “I’m Miguel, Rusty. Welcome to our program.” He directed me from his office to a patio facing out toward the field of activity.

 I first wanted to know when the facility came into being and how long he has been associated with the organization.

 “We were founded in 1984 by Theresa Wilhelm, with one horse and one student.” Today the Center sports more than 100 students and ten horses and a wide variety of special programs.

 Miguel immediately launched into a spell-binding dialogue of praise of T.H.E. CENTER and the services it provides to the community.

 “Obviously, to be a student here, one must have a doctor diagnosed disability that qualifies to enter the program. Although we service more young students, medically diagnosed adults are accepted.”

 The primary activity is known as “Therapeutic Riding.” Miguel assured me this was no pony riding sideshow for kids. “Students have in-depth experience to last for a lifetime. Perhaps you maybe never noticed, but horses walk three-dimensionally, just like humans. A student with muscular sclerosis, cerebral palsy or muscle mass issues, simply by placing them on a horse, becomes a different individual. When the horse begins to move, the handicapped student feels the human gait and begins to ride as though they are walking, their bodies moving with the horse’s flexibilities. They take on the feeling they would have if able to walk on the ground.”

 It is a feeling; he says like a polio victim gets from swimming, where water renders one weightless and without the helplessness of paralyzation. “Mimicking the human gait is a huge physical component. Naturally, being around a thousand-pound creature involves a lot of emotional confidence being gained that doesn’t come about with smaller animals and household pets.”

 I imagined that being around horses might intimidate some younger children. “Sometimes, it can be fearful. Overcoming such fears has healing results.”

 I also learned that the majority of the students are young men. “It is pretty much the ‘I want to be a cowboy’ attitude that boys have, although I’ve noticed that girls adapt well to horse riding.”

 Many of their students are on the autistic level. “We also have orthopedic cases and many students with neurological problems. Programs here focus on following directions, being attentive and performing the tasks the teachers ask of them under a wide variety of conditions.”

 He especially stressed the importance of teacher qualifications. “Instructors must be up to date on teaching skills. We are accredited through P.A.T.H., (Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship), a national organization that assures that sites like this all follow the same rules and adhere to the same qualities. Our instructors are all PATH CERTIFIED every year in continued education. Anybody can say they’re providing therapeutic riding, but a PATH CERTIFIED instructor is recognized throughout the land as the very best.”

 PATH‘s governing body visits every couple of years “to assure that all of our documentation is appropriate and that all our horses are being properly attended.”

 The Center conducts something like 4500 lessons every year. Trust me, that’s a lot of horseback riding in anyone’s language.

 I wondered where all the money came from to fund the ranch – and it is ranch-sized. Also, if they provided the program free of cost. “I wish it were free. Tuition is based on family incomes. Within the industry, the cost is known as ‘the billing rate.’ Group lessons are priced at $40; individual lessons at $50.” The program offers scholarship reductions in hardship situations. “Some students pay as little as $10 per lesson, based on a family’s ability to pay. We do provide lessons at a less cost than comparable programs.” I got the impression that no one has ever been turned away due to lack of funds. After all, it is a non-profit and those organizations always seem to find a way when there appears to be no way.

 That brought up more questions. The curiosity of a journalist is eternal. “Did you guys suffer much from the recent recession, and if so, how bad was it?

 “The Center has struggled the past several years. Non-profits suffer when times get hard. Folks don’t donate when it is all they can do is put food on the table. That’s when we are most challenged. It costs to keep up a place like this. Feed for the horses runs high. Luckily, there’s an annual scholarship program to cover feed for horses.”

 He pointed out costs for medicines, plus shoe and farrier services.  Of course, they do not train with thoroughbred horses requiring more expensive upkeep.  “It is our good fortune to deal mostly with older, gentler horses.

 After receiving a new layer to my forever ongoing search for education, I wanted to know what emotional effect his work had on him. Miguel had a ready answer.

 Miguel is the all-American athletic type. I’m sure he’s older than his peach-fuzz traces of a beard indicate, so I naturally wondered how working with, what the average guy might consider hopeless situations, affected him. “No one ever asked me that question.  These kids are never hopeless to me.  I will say that what I deal with every day causes me to appreciate what I have in life. No matter how difficult one’s life may be, there are others with far greater problems who handle those problems as though they might be nothing more than a bump in the road to them. They dwell more on optimism without any self-pity.  Being able to see a student who’s confined to a wheelchair and unable to speak – watching her up on a horse laughing and making sounds that show you she’s excited in that moment. That’s a remarkable experience. I never forget times like that. Every day I am happy to have this opportunity and to be a part of their lives.”

 Even with the challenges of not enough money, horses to feed, overhead and natural interruptions, Miguel plunges on as do all those involved at T.H.E. CENTER.

 My visit left me humbled and not such a know-it-all. Just sayin’

[email protected]

 (Look for Part II of this story in next week’s Hemet San Jacinto Chronicle).

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