Therapeutic Riding: Partners In Equestrian Therapy

Can a horse help teach a child to read? Will a horse coax a child to speak? Can a horse give walking legs to a child who can’t walk on his own? Will a horse love unconditionally, and because of that love develop courage and a heart to care in people who are traumatized? Yes, Yes, Yes and Yes again, all through Partners in Equestrian Therapy (P.E.T) and Veterans in Equestrian Therapy (V.E.T.) located in Atascadero, California. Both are unique riding programs targeting kids, as well as adults, with special needs to improve their cognitive, physical and psychological abilities.


Partners in Equestrian Therapy Origins

We, as equestrians, all know that horses are wonderful creatures and probably have our own stories of our connections to our equine partners. The horses and people of P.E.T. serve disabled kids and adults weekly creating success stories for their lives, and was founded 20 years ago by Dena Sherry. Her daughter had some disabilities to overcome and responded well to Equine Therapy, so Dena started her own local program. P.E.T. has had several homes over the years but it is happily settled at the beautiful and accommodating Rancho Del Rio in Atascadero.

Veterans in Equestrian Therapy Program

The V.E.T. program was started in 2013. “The Veterans program is really a family program. The Vets are encouraged to bring their families to experience riding together,” says Melanie Williams-Mahan the P.E.T. and V.E.T. Program Coordinator and Board Chairman of P.E.T. and V.E.T. programs. Veterans grow from doing the arena work but also enjoy trail riding which is not available from Rancho del Rio. “We coordinate and help sponsor a Veterans trail ride using the horses of Madonna Inn Trail Rides on the trails at the Madonna Inn. We all sponsor the rides and Madonna Inn provides a lunch for the Veterans and their families.” Melanie continued to talk about the V.E.T. rides, “We are thankful for the Community Foundation Scholarship that enables us to help fund these outings for the Veterans and their families. We are really excited about the V.E.T. program.”


Special Success Story Memories

Today the P.E.T. and V.E.T. programs are helping and have helped numerous riders overcome the limitations of a variety of disabilities, including helping a young girl to learn to read, as the riding activity enabled her mind to concentrate on the letters and their sounds. Many Autistic children are non-verbal yet are put on a horse that responds to voice commands. These children get comfortable using their voices by asking the horse to move forward or go into another gait. Riding a horse brings joy to many children and adults who are unable to walk on their own. Sitting up on the horse and using it for their own legs, the rider feels the movement of walking “on their own”. Veterans learn to trust, to love, to care and to heal through riding and caring for the horses after traumatic experiences.

“We had one boy who was afraid of everything, every animal, even a bug,” explained Melanie when asked about her favorite success story. “So we introduced the horse to him with a picnic. The horse was on the other side of the fence during the experience. Eventually he got on Etenna for his first ride and she was so quiet that she didn’t even sneeze until after he got off. The boy was so relaxed by then that he burst out in laughter.”

Another favorite memory of Melanie’s is: “We had a shy 5 year old girl come out to the ranch to ride. She was in an uncooperative mood and sat down on the mounting block and turned her back to Etenna who reached out to the girl by nudging the little girl in the back with her muzzle. The little girl was transformed and got on and rode that day.”

“It’s amazing to me every time I see a child or adult growing through their physical limitations through riding. I just love my job!” exclaimed Melanie in response to her involvement with the P.E.T. program.


Meet the Horses

“Our horses also love their jobs!” expressed Melanie when asked about the special horses that are the stars of the P.E.T. program. Currently four horses carry out the work of providing life-changing experiences to children and adults with disabilities. The stars of the program are:

Etenna: is a 28-year-old Norwegian Fjord mare. Her mother was one of the first P.E.T. horses so Etenna has been part of the program her whole life. She is the cornerstone of the program and is an absolute dream of a horse. Etenna likes to nap during lessons, saving energy for her pursuit of grass and carrots after lessons!

Chief Four Socks

Chief Four Socks: is a 16-year-old Quarter Horse gelding who has been part of the P.E.T. program for 6 years. He is known as the clown of our herd; always putting a smile on the riders’ and volunteers’ faces.

Hot Sonny Fourth:
is a 14-year-old Quarter Horse gelding donated by Cindy Allen of Santa Ynez. He comes from Colorado but loves his life here, and has settled in nicely to our Central Coast lifestyle! Sonny and his pasture-mate Razzy love basking in the sun and eating dinner side-by-side.

Gentle Ben

Gentle Ben: is the newest addition to the P.E.T. program. He is a 6-year-old Norwegian Fjord, originally from Montana. Ben is energetic and loving, and really enjoys his job helping riders. He has certainly grown to love the California sun!

A Wide Range of Volunteers

Numerous jobs for volunteers are completed throughout the week. Riding primarily takes place on Tuesdays and Saturdays. Each rider gets one lead walker and two side walkers. The lead walker is responsible for the horse and is relied upon to be reading the body language of the horse to alert the others to possible situations. Two side walkers assist the rider and help keep him or her on the horse. Side walkers also interact with the rider encouraging balancing exercises to enable the rider to get the most out of the riding experience.

There are a variety of other jobs that need to be done on a daily basis, like exercising the horses and doing some training, and feeding the horses their daily supplements.

P.E.T. has an orientation program that all the volunteers go through so that all are comfortable with meeting the needs of the riders. Whether the volunteer has prior horse experience or not there is a job for everyone.


How You Can Get Involved

Donate your time, your talents, and your treasure. Currently P.E.T. is looking for volunteers who can exercise and perhaps train the horses. The primary funding comes from private grants. Rider’s pay P.E.T. $25-50 per lesson and there is scholarship money available. The V.E.T. program is funded though donations and grants. “We are glad to see organizations recognizing our work and getting behind what we are doing.” stated Melanie.



There are so many ways to horse around in stunning SLO County. To keep this info at your fingertips we have developed a FREE Hot Sheet that will direct you to stories which tell you where you can trail ride, stay with your horse, show and taste. We’ll continue to add horsing around stories to our website. You can stay up-to-date by becoming a SLO Horse News herd member. Get your Horsing Around in SLO County Hot Sheet here >.

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