Handi-Riders encounter financial hurdles

The nonprofit pairs disabled students with horses to great success

Handi-Riders Horse Manager Chris Latouche helps a student interact with one of the programs’s horses.

Handi-Riders Horse Manager Chris Latouche helps a student interact with one of the programs’s horses.

Photo courtesy of Handi-Riders

Lend a hand: Handi-Riders is need of volunteers and donations. For information on how to help, visit www.handi-riders.org.

Watching a child affected by autism or adult with cerebral palsy get past his or her disabilities by riding a horse is a beautiful thing, said Danny Cuneo, executive director of Handi-Riders.

“We actually witness miracles every day,” she said, a broad smile on her face.

She recalled a student who came to Handi-Riders when he was 5 years old. He had stopped speaking. Upon arriving on the first day of his session, he refused to leave his mother’s arms. After a little coaxing and literally picking up the boy and placing him on a horse, he started to calm down.

“As soon as the horse started to move, he was calm,” Cuneo said. “And after two classes, he was making audible noises—not words, but close—to signal commands.”

Cuneo has been with the nonprofit for about five years, since she was approached by its founders because of her expansive ranch near Table Mountain. The organization, which links people with disabilities and horses, is now based on that property. The founders, Freddie and Anthony Holochwost, retired last month and, quite literally, handed over the reins to Cuneo.

When all is well, the organization offers three sessions a year to about 100 students each session, receiving funding for about 70 percent of its students through the Far Northern Regional Center, which is state funded.

Unfortunately for the nonprofit, all is not well. In September, that funding was cut off. The organization still had some money set aside for scholarships, which it has always offered, but now more students will have to rely on themselves—or their families—to provide tuition, which runs $250 per eight-week session.

“We’ve almost depleted our scholarships,” Cuneo said.

Another financial hurdle the nonprofit has encountered is paying for a covered—and eventually enclosed—arena. Two sizeable donations in 2005 were enough then to pay for its completion. Skeleton metal and the roof have already been purchased, as has the pad for the ground. But money ran out for building the thing. Cuneo estimated they’ll need about $22,000 to erect the covered arena and another $40,000 to enclose it. But she sees the arena as an important part of the organization’s evolution.

“If we had an indoor arena, we could double our enrollment,” she said.

Horse Manager Chris Latouche, who has worked at Handi-Riders since 2001, echoed her sentiments.

“Most of our students have to take a huge break from November until March,” she said. “Then they regress. This way we could continue on and offer another session in the winter and the students wouldn’t have to start all over again.”

Latouche, like Cuneo, is a horse lover. As horse manager, she lives on the ranch and takes care of the animals on a regular basis. She also has worked in the special-education field for 12 years.

“For me, this is the best of both worlds, to be able to continue to work in the school system and then take the knowledge I get in school and use it out with the horses and students,” Latouche said.

The most rewarding thing about working at Handi-Riders is “all the success stories,” she said, describing how autistic children learn to communicate and physically disabled kids can work on their core muscles just by being on a horse.

“We had one little girl who was not able to walk hardly at all when she came to us,” she said. “She’s been riding for four years, and she’s now able to walk all over the place.”

She explained that the movement of the horse walking actually mimics a human walking and can create muscle memory where there is none. There are also people with emotional issues who come to Handi-Riders to work on trust and communication skills.

“There’s an incredible connection between a horse and a person,” Cuneo explained. “Horses were given a character that actually wants to partner with humans. They’re considered sentient beings because they can sense emotions, which can create a great synergy between horse and rider.”

With the current state of the economy, Cuneo is guarded in her approach to the future, but also optimistic. She clearly takes pride in her job, and hopes more people will learn the importance of equine therapy.

“I know that horses are therapeutic because when I need therapy, I get on my horse,” she said.