Therapy Barns in the Wake of the Corona Crisis


As the pandemic spreads across the country, barns are continuing to have to close their doors to their students. From elite training facilities to small town schooling barns, everyone is taking a hit from the Coronavirus. Storm Harbor Equestrian Center (SHEC) in Western Pennsylvania is no exception to this.

SHEC is home to the Slippery Rock University’s IHSA English and Western equestrian teams, but  the facility also houses the only premier accredited equestrian center in western Pennsylvania with PATH International (Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship), a major organization in the country for equine assisted activities. The Storm Harbor Equestrian Center facility is located in Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania and offers programs for people of all ages with cognitive, physical, emotional, and social disabilities. The facility encompasses an 18 stall barn, 190’ by 80’ indoor radiant heated arena, 100’ by 200’ outdoor sand arena, two tack rooms, a heated wash bay, four pastures with run in sheds, multiple trails as well as a sensory tail that is used for programming needs. On March 12th, 2020, the equestrian center, under the guidance of Slippery Rock University, had to close their doors in an effort to comply with social distancing.

Courtney Gramlich, Director of Storm Harbor,  has been involved in the equestrian sport since she was seven. She has competed at the 4H, local, and A rated hunter shows from the large ponies to the juniors and later the adult amateurs. Now, Gramlich mainly competes in the local level with her current show horse, Upon Mitos. Gramlich has recently taken up cowboy mounted shooting. 

During all of Gramlich’s accomplishments in the equestrian sport, she has been involved in therapeutic riding as a volunteer and even received a degree in Recreational Therapy from Slippery Rock University in 2000 and received a full-time job at George Junior Republic in Grove City, PA where she worked for six years. Gramlich was on the advisory board when discussion of Storm Harbor Equestrian Center began and in 2006 she was hired as the full time director once the facility was completed.  

Sensory Trail

The therapy barn has always been very reliant on its student workers and volunteers but with the University now closed and moving to online classes for the remainder of the semester, the day-to-day routine has changed for the remaining full-time staff. 

“We are able to manage to take care of the horses with the three full time staff employed at the barn and the facility is currently closed to all individuals except those of us feeding or veterinary/farrier care if needed. The day to day routine has changed tremendously though,” Gramlich shared.  “Typically the three full-time staff focused on many other things than feeding and cleaning of the facility. With this quarantine situation, we are now strictly at the barn to do those two things. Students are no longer allowed to work per University guidelines.”

It is still unknown when the facility will be able to reopen its doors to its clients. “It is really hard for most of our riders to understand why the program has cancelled. That is by far the hardest part for us, the students and volunteers,” Gramlich commented. “Many riders look forward to their weekly or biweekly lessons and it might be one of the only things they participate in outside of school or a job, it is a really hard thing to just abruptly stop,” Gramlich continued. “I think we may see many physical down turns as well with many riders. Many physical benefits are identified with therapeutic riding and with several months of this not happening I’m sure we will see some riders digress in some areas.”

Gramlich shared that her and her staff are hopeful that they will be able to rebound once the crisis is over, but it will not be easy.  “By us having to cancel programming just for the month of March we are losing about twenty thousand dollars. March, April, May are some of our busiest months throughout the year because we work with many schools, and have a lot of programs that run during the busiest times within the semester to give SRU students wonderful hands on experience working with people with disabilities,” Gramlich commented. 

“Regardless of the financial strain this will have on us, these programs are extremely valuable community engaged learning experiences for the students,” Gramlich continued. “I believe many programs, including ours, will increase programming tremendously once the quarantine is lifted but then the problem lies in ensuring you don’t work the horses too much to try and catch up on programs you had to cancel. With our increase in horse numbers since our addition was completed in October 2019,  this will help us be able to add extra programs to weekend and other open times. I believe we will all have to be very creative in the coming months to keep our programs viable and really on the forefront of people’s thoughts.”

Although the next few months might be a struggle for the facility, the fall brings new hope. “We rely heavily on donations and especially local community support. Thankfully our largest fundraiser of the year, Sunset Serenade,  is in the fall. I am hopefully we will be able to continue on with our plans for that event,” Gramlich shared, feeling optimistic. “Sunset Serenade is our largest fundraiser, last year alone we raised 175 thousand dollars with over five hundred people in attendance and support from people all over the country.”

Sunset Serenade 2019

Sunset Serenade is set to be held on October 17, 2020 and invites people to join the Storm Harbor staff and volunteers for a night at the equestrian center full of food, music and fun. The event will host a silent auction and a live auction where individuals will have the opportunity to outbid their friends with all profits going towards the facility. “We are discussing strategies on how to ensure this event is as successful this year, along with other ways to rebound from the lost revenue,” Gramlinch shared.  These strategies include looking for ways to increase sponsorships and donations for the event, monetary and in-kind donations that can be auctioned off during the events. 

“I think this pandemic is going to have a huge impact on the equine industry as a whole in all areas, not just showing and racing but the small lesson barn or the large lesson barn,” Gramlich shared. “If people can’t attend then no one makes any money. It’s a vicious cycle but I hope everyone can pull together and get through it.“

Storm Harbor is one of over 850 PATH International certified facilities in the United States and around the world providing equine-assisted activities and therapies, all ranging in size. All of these facilities are undergoing tough times during this crisis and will rely on the support of the equestrian community. There are many ways that we can get involved that does not include monetary donations, but also through volunteering.

How Horses Are Coping

With the impacts of the current health pandemic, it is not clear yet if the virus can infect animals, like horses. Whatever the case may be, it’s vital to keep their health at full guard. Here are some expert tips to keep your equine healthy and safe, most especially during this trying time.

  • Keep Your Equine Fit: One way to keep your horse fit and healthy is investing in horse treadmills for therapy and rehabilitation, which help increase your horse’s cardiovascular activity, stride length, and muscle tone and strength. Also, it builds correct gait, which is good for sales and preparation for yearling.
  • Revamp Nutrition: Check the best diet plan for your horse with your veterinarian. Less runs may mean fewer calories to maintain your horse’s ideal body weight.

How Equestrians Are Coping

 While those with a spacious backyard or farm still enjoyed their horse-riding experience, many renters were affected, most especially equestrians in the cities. Even competitions were cancelled or postponed.

With millions of COVID-19 cases in the United States and all over the world, the anxiety of people stems from the uncertainties of the future. For equestrians, it may mean the industry will take a longer time to get back on track.

It’s a good thing that rules and guidelines are getting less strict, which calls for a celebration for the entire equestrian community. While waiting for total citizenship vaccination, it’s worth spending the holidays with your favorite horse and family members.

In conclusion, therapy barns are highly recommended for all equestrians and their horses. You can take advantage of these services to help you recover from the turmoil of the COVID-19 pandemic while still complying with safety and health protocols.

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