Volunteering at the Shea Center for Therapeutic Riding

Horses, clients, and volunteers have bonding experiences

Staff and volunteer working with satisfied client. (The Shea Center)

Staff and volunteer working with satisfied client. (The Shea Center)

The goal of the Shea Center for Therapeutic Riding is to enrich the lives of individuals with disabilities through therapeutic horse-associated programs in San Juan Capistrano. Over 850 community volunteers donate their time serving special needs clients as barn crew, horse leader, fitness volunteer and horse side walker.

This is comparable to a traditional therapy setting, in that it services physical, occupational and speech therapies. The clientele encompasses individuals with 75 physical and cognitive disabilities such as autism and cerebral palsy. Janelle Robinson, the Director of Therapeutic Programs, describes that in the duration of one therapeutic riding session, the horse’s motion rotates a client’s pelvis up to 3,000 times. Clients learn to walk, speak, develop balance and become more independent.

Most clients are predominately children with some adult participants. It also boasts a robust military services program. Annually, the center serves 1,000 clients and logs 28,000 volunteer hours.

Nancy and Derek Lewis founded the non-profit organization in 1978, after their son Michael was born with cerebral palsy. It is one of the largest therapeutic equestrian facilities in the country with 23 horses. Acclaimed by the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International for its programs, attracting students and interns to the therapeutic riding training facility.

The Center states that a lesson volunteer is required to have the willingness to learn, be a minimum of 14 years of age, able to lift 25 pounds and be fit to walk two to three miles. Each volunteer commits to one 45 minute lesson per week for 10 weeks.

Barn crew members are expected to help wherever needed and to assist as a side walker. Leaders can be trained specifically by the staff in leading and controlling the horse throughout the lesson. Side walkers ensure safety for the duration of the ride for the client and must be capable of walking or jogging on uneven ground.

“I got involved with the Shea Center a year ago,” said Caprice Trejo, the January 2018 volunteer of the month. “I heard about it though friends and work clients. I love working with kids and horses, so this was a perfect opportunity to give back to the community.”

Trejo begins her day at the center working in barn crew where the group prepares horse tacks in preparation for the next hour’s lessons. Part of her duties are to groom the horses before she has two lessons with different children where she practices various skills. She indicates that generally each child has the same horse for every lesson, so that the rider can build trust and a connection with the animal.

“For instance, a person in a wheelchair can benefit from horse riding since sitting on the horse helps stretch their muscles and promote core strength,” said Trejo. “For those who are improving their motor skills, we play games on the horse such as basketball and ring toss.”

Maria Schwartz attests that she has witnessed extraordinary progress with the clients working as a volunteer. Her passion for therapeutic riding led her to participate in the Drive to Ride campaign ending in early March in order to raise money for client financial aid and horse care. Her team successfully raised $540 during the donation event.

Client fees constitute 13 percent of the Center’s operating costs. Fundraising is a vital component to the operating success of the non-profit. The center’s annual fund provides for the facilities, staff salaries and overall maintenance. Sponsors, donors and foundation grants cover the remaining costs.

“The volunteer program is inspiring and my days are always better when I have spent time at the Shea Center,” said Schwartz, volunteer since the summer of 2017. “Spending time with the horses and clients helped me from the recent loss of my mother and has inspired me to make a positive difference.”

Volunteers and clients will have an opportunity to participate at the Swallows Day Parade in San Juan Capistrano on Saturday March 24.