Pegasus Therapeutic Riding helps special needs kids learn new skills on horseback for free — and it needs your support.
BY KRISTIN PITZER
“Pegasus gives clients with a variety of deficits a place to go to regain their self-confidence, feel the love of a large animal, and meet those beautiful individuals that volunteer and work with the client to ride and feel ‘tall in the saddle.’” ~ E. Kontaxis, M.D.
For those who show in Thermal, California, the new year brings the start of the next show season. But the kids who frequent Pegasus Therapeutic Riding in nearby Palm Desert have been hard at work since October on range of motion (ROM) exercises, enjoying the sense of independence being on horseback gives them.
“The magic of these horses and this program helps improve the quality of life for our clients and touches the lives of our volunteers as well,” said Chase Berke, program director and Chief Operating Officer at Pegasus. “When you put a child who uses a wheelchair on a horse and they feel the sensation of walking — the horse’s walk is the closest thing to a human’s walk — their face just lights up. It gives them freedom and confidence, and they feel a part of everything, simply by being on this horse.”
Over the 38 years Pegasus Therapeutic Riding has been in operation, Berke estimates it has assisted more than 8,000 people. As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, the treatment it offers is 100% free to special needs kids in the Coachella Valley. These kids come from families that would not otherwise have the opportunity to participate in a therapeutic riding program or ride a horse. They are bussed in at no cost to the families, and a team of volunteers assists with each facet of the program.
“We put the ‘able’ in disabled,” said Penny Carpenter, a judge and steward on the hunter jumper circuit who is also a board member and volunteer for Pegasus. “‘All special needs, all ages,’ is our motto.”
Pegasus works in conjunction with doctors and therapists, and riders must be certified special needs and approved by their doctors to participate in the “non-conventional” therapy program.
“We’re not a pony ride,” Berke said. “They’re getting therapy on horses, developing and strengthening muscles, learning balance, building core muscles, and improving hand-eye coordination. Some people speak for the first time. They learn trust and confidence because they’re interacting with these big, huge, wonderful animals.”
Since the organization doesn’t charge the families that use its services, it relies entirely on grants, donations and fundraising events to cover its operating expenses like housing and feeding the school’s horses, and purchasing equipment. With the recession caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, there is some worry that the gifts that help the school survive may become a bit more scarce.
In addition to money, running the operation requires the help of many volunteers. School is in session Wednesday through Saturday from October through May, and there are six half-hour sessions a day. Four to six riders can go into the ring at a time, and each rider needs two side walkers and a horse leader. On top of that, a volunteer is in the arena giving the lesson, and there are usually two to three more helping out. Other volunteer jobs include fitting helmets and helping the stable manager pair horses with riders.
All these tasks necessitate more than 40 volunteers a day. Berke emphasized that the program couldn’t exist without its volunteers or especially without its benefactors. Carpenter called on the able-bodied riders showing at Thermal to appreciate their own abilities, which are far and beyond what special needs riders can do, by supporting a local charity.
“This puts horse life into perspective for me to see these riders that have special needs,” Carpenter said. “As Winston Churchill is quoted as saying, ‘There is something about the outside of a horse that’s good for the inside of a man.’ That’s really meaningful to our organization.”
Donations can be made by visiting pegasusridingacademy.org or see Penny Carpenter at Thermal horse show series.
Pegasus Therapeutic Riding Fast Facts
- • Years in existence: 38
- • Students served throughout lifetime: 8,000+
- • Cost of valley-wide bussing to Pegasus: $25,000/year
- • Cost of therapy: $995/child per year
- • Cost of horse care: $3,600/horse per year ($300 per month)
- • Students served: 150-200/week
- • Paid employees: 4
- • Therapy horses: 11-14
- • Volunteers required: 4-6/child
Originally published in the January 2021 issue.