Horses and a therapeutic riding program give wings to South Bay individuals with disabilities.

“There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man,” said Sir Winston Churchill, speaking to the depth of the spiritual connections that some people (man, woman or child) have the great fortune of experiencing with horses. And perhaps on an even deeper level are the ethereal encounters that occur between horses and those affected by special needs, which seemingly stem from a kinship rooted in vulnerability and survival instincts. 

In response to a personal calling to a local mother’s dream of sharing her love of horses with her own special needs child, in 1994 the nonprofit organization Ride to Fly was founded to provide therapeutic horseback riding and learning experiences to children and adults with disabilities. The charity operates from stables in the Portuguese Bend community of Rancho Palos Verdes and is accredited by the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International (or PATH International).

In addition to the board of directors, Ride to Fly is comprised of a head wrangler, three certified instructors, two instructors in training and volunteers who fill the boots of side walkers, spotters, horse leaders and caregivers. Last but not least is the heart of the team: the horses.  

Cochise—a former Rose Parade horse, Luna—a sorrel-and-white quarter horse, and a pony named Prince Charming were adopted into the riding program after thorough evaluation by the trained staff. According to instructor Beth Donavan, the careful assessment of all new horses includes bouncing balls around them, rustling plastic bags, mimicking unstable leg movement and training them to forget old behaviors and cues. 

“Our participants’ experiences with the horses are not only fun and exciting; they also provide great core and balance therapy. This can be very empowering, particularly for those who are able to ‘walk’ while riding a horse without worrying about falling down,” says executive director Gail Grove.  

Such has been the case for 11-year-old Ryan Sinclair, who lives with cerebral palsy. Ryan, who squeals with delight during each of his Ride to Fly sessions, started in the program when he was 4. Through her own research, his mother, Kim, learned that riding horses would be good for him. 

“It is the most comprehensive recreational activity for his body that he does without complaining, which he does with conventional therapy. The motion of the horse is the closest he will feel to walking on his own, and it also helps his visual processing when he is off the horse,” she says.


"Our participants’ experiences with the horses are not only fun and exciting; they also provide great core and balance therapy.”


Beyond emotional rewards, body strengthening and stimulating the vestibular system in the inner ear and balance, there are other healing benefits experienced by Ride to Fly participants. Instructor Lea Anthony, an avid equestrian and professional speech pathologist before the onset of muscular sclerosis, can attest to that.  

Formerly a participant in the program and now a teacher, Anthony says, “Riding stimulates the speech center in the brain, and we have had some of our nonverbal clients spontaneously say their first words here. One of the most memorable times was when a boy named Dario, affected by autism, said, ‘I love you, Willie!’ to his horse after only one or two sessions.”

Whether an equine/human heart-connection occurs over time or during a brief encounter, it often changes lives. For young Dario, who proclaimed his love to his trusty steed that wondrous day, rest assured that though Willie could not say it out loud, he loved the boy right back. 

To learn more, visit ridetofly.com.

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