Story Jennifer Frances Photos Steven Krause
In a region renowned for its spas, hot springs and passion for wellness, one Sonoma family discovered their curative nirvana in an unlikely spot: at a horse ranch located on a few special acres just west of the Valley. Most weeks, for the past four years, Sung and Laura Chung have traveled down the long, narrow access road off Lakeville Highway to bring their 7-year-old son, Aiden, to Giant Steps Therapeutic Equestrian Center. There, Aiden has been developing physical, social and emotional skills that extend to all aspects of his life, and his parents have developed unique friendships and support within a kindred community. Without question, it’s worth the trip.
Aiden—whose dad, Sung, describes with a smile as “a handful,” “all boy” and “very energetic”—loves riding horses in the Giant Steps arena. Born with Down syndrome, Aiden has been meeting the challenges of his diagnosis atop a thousand-pound, hooved creature. Tiny by comparison, Aiden sits confidently on Knicker as they ride around and around the arena, giving the horse verbal commands, such as “whoa” and “walk” while instructors and volunteers ensure his safety and help him achieve specific goals.
Sung and Laura Chung’s gratitude for what Giant Steps has done for their son is palpable. “We’re just so grateful,” says Laura, tearing up with motherly pride as she watches her little boy circling the arena in his saddle and stirrups.
For one, Aiden no longer needs to see a physical therapist. His weekly therapeutic ride on Knicker provides the core and neck strength he needs to hold his head up and develop his speech. Moreover, Laura observes positive social outcomes, with the benefits of Giant Steps extending well beyond the arena. Whether visiting museums with his parents or traveling to visit his adult sister, Jade, in New Zealand, Aiden has become more involved in the world around him, a fact for which Laura gives Giant Steps credit. And all of his extended family –brothers Cameron and Sean, both in San Francisco, delight in his progress.
“We’re noticing his greater engagement…the ability to have a desire, to integrate and participate, and we love that,” she says. “That’s really what we’re excited about.”
The nonprofit Giant Steps Therapeutic Center, which shares an access road with Sonoma Horse Park, provides services for kids and adults of all different diagnoses and situations. As Program Director Julie Larson explains, “Giant Steps works with people of all abilities and disabilities, teaching horseback riding to people with specific needs. The riding of the horse, and the exercises that we structure for them, helps them either emotionally, physically, cognitively or all of the above.”
From veterans struggling with PTSD, homelessness or addiction to kids with Down’s, autism, cerebral palsy and more, there seems to be a therapeutic universality to riding a horse in the fresh air and open space, whatever the individual circumstances.
Larson notes that there are “a lot of different reasons that horses are great.” A short list of life skills riders work toward through horsemanship includes following multi-step directions, increasing patience and attention span and learning to use appropriate vocal tones. Physically, riders improve gross and fine motor skills, increase coordination, flexibility and strength, and more.
“For physical reasons, sitting on the back of the horse, the warmth of the horse really warms up the muscles,” says Larson. Moreover, horses have a unique motion created by their gait. “Every time the horse stops you have to adjust your core,” she explains. “You have to have balance to stay on the horse. So, you’re getting balance, you’re getting flexibility, you’re getting core strength.” For riders who use wheelchairs or don’t walk on their own, the unique motion of horses can be a rare opportunity to exercise the motion and positioning of human hips.
“As you’re sitting there passively on the horse, you’re receiving the motion as if you’re walking, the way your hips move,” says Larson. “I know that they’ve tried to replicate that—make a machine that could do that—and it apparently has not been successful.” She describes the movement one gets on horseback as “front-to-back, side-to-side and also rotational,” saying that it “is nearly impossible to reproduce mechanically.”
For rider Lucas Stisher, age 11, who has cerebral palsy, the strength he’s gained through riding at Giant Steps for the past several years has allowed him to sit upright rather than slumped over. Moreover, the unique motions of the horse’s gait helps to align Lucas’ hips and pelvis, explains his mom, Angie Lucas.
Beyond the physical benefits, therapeutic horseback riding provides a wealth of emotional and social benefits, and Angie concurs with the other parents at the arena that their time at Giant Steps has been a “really positive experience.” In addition to the supportive community of parents she’s found and Lucas’ recreational enjoyment, for example, Angie has noticed that her son is “better at following directions”––sitting atop such a large animal intensifies the need to follow directions of trainers and volunteers, after all––and she says that Lucas has become “much more confident.”
“If you can sit on the horse, steer the horse, and direct that horse, be in charge of the horse, it’s really empowering and a big confidence builder,” says Larson.
“We work with a lot of riders with autism,” Larson says, and “we see riders gain communication skills” through interactions with both the horses and the volunteers who walk alongside them. They can also begin to learn to express empathy, which might have been previously elusive.
“Plus,” Larson adds, “you’re outside getting fresh air, and a lot of our riders just don’t really get a chance to have recreational activities.”
Not surprisingly, providing a first-rate therapeutic equine experience is more complicated than simply plopping someone on a saddle. A complex ecosystem of 15 carefully selected and trained horses, a dedicated staff of 8, 125 riders and families, and a small army of 140 volunteers work in concert to create the Giant Steps experience. Larson admits that designing the rosters for each of the four annual sessions––that is, matching the riders to the right horses and volunteers to optimize their goal achievement––can be arduous.
“Putting the roster together is a fairly daunting task,” she says. “It’s not just pairing the right people, but pairing people with the right horses, as well. Some horses are wide and slow, good for people who lack balance. Some horses are narrow and maybe more energetic, which might be a great fit for somebody with autism, because they’re craving that stimulation.” She jokes that the final outcome of her and Head Instructor Jen McWherter’s roster-making efforts can feel like “a work of art.”
The results are evident. In one example, Larson recalls the connection that’s developed between a boy with autism and the volunteer who works with him. “This man comes out twice a week, and he and this boy work really, really well together,” she says. “They will make eye contact. This boy is on the higher end of the autism spectrum … and he really relates beautifully with this gentleman. Over the years, they have built up quite a nice relationship, which is a struggle for a lot of people with autism.” She adds, “We have just the best volunteers.”
She recalls another boy, also with autism, whose horse at Giant Steps, Tuey, recently retired. “We were worried it was going to be a difficult transition for him,” she says. “He has autism, and when Tuey left, his mom said, ‘You know, I totally credit that horse for teaching this boy how to love animals and be compassionate with other animals.’ Then he started to ride Tiki, and it was really a fluid transition. He learned to be compassionate––to like animals and other beings.”
Often, “people with autism have problems with communication and relating to other beings. They don’t like to make eye contact and are sort of locked within themselves,” says Larson. That’s what makes it especially profound, she says, “for him to be able to reach out and have empathy: to take care of and feed another animal, and to get outside of himself and think of the other animal’s feelings, to trust that animal, as well––and therefore trust another horse, and maybe a dog or something. That can be a really powerful life skill.”
The families who bring riders to the ranch also benefit from forging community bonds, sharing information and by getting a brief respite from care-giving. Likewise, the veterans who come from places such as the San Francisco VA get respite from the city. Says Larson, “We’ve had a few vets say that this is a place where they feel really calm.”
Clearly, the legacy left by founders Robert Pope and Lee Justice (both deceased) reaches far. Celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, Giant Steps is a PATH (Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship) International Premier Accredited Center.
Beyond the credentials, though, is the individualized care and expectation for progress that makes Giant Steps so special. As Aiden’s mom, Laura, puts it: “[The kids] are not just riders to them, and they’re not just taking care of the horses here.” Of the staff and volunteers she says, “They’re all fabulous. They relate with each of [the kids] and expect that next level of growth, pushing them to work within themselves. It trickles from the top down, because the volunteers they get are really amazing.”
Giant Steps Therapeutic Equestrian Center is located at 7600 Lakeville Highway, between Sonoma and Petaluma. Go to gianstepsriding.org, or call 707.769.8900.