Horse helpers

Handi-Riders therapeutic horseback-riding program helps kids with disabilities

Rachel Brightwell gets encouragement from volunteer Don Saul as she winds up to toss a bean bag.

Rachel Brightwell gets encouragement from volunteer Don Saul as she winds up to toss a bean bag.

Photo courtesy of Handi-Riders

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To volunteer, donate or learn more about Handi-Riders of Northern California, call 533-5333 or check

Suzanne Bernard remembers 2005 vividly. That’s when she became a volunteer at Handi-Riders of Northern California Inc., an equine-assisted therapy program in Butte County, and kindled a passion that continues six years later.

Two girls she helped back then still stick out in her mind. One, a grade-schooler named Allie, had a neurological disorder known as Rett syndrome. The other, a young woman named Jolene, was born with Down syndrome. With each, Bernard recalled, “getting her to acknowledge you was always a challenge.” They’d keep their heads down and would barely register a response to Bernard and the surroundings.

That is, until they saddled up—on horseback, Allie and Jolene were “in a different world.” They were no longer so withdrawn. In eight short weeks, Bernard saw a remarkable difference in Allie; Jolene, too, came back for additional classes.

“It gives you chills,” said Bernard, now the organization’s executive director, of seeing the progress in each child as he or she learns to ride—and bond with—a horse.

Handi-Riders can accommodate a wide range of conditions, backgrounds and ages. Many students are kids and teens, but adults and seniors also participate. They benefit from physical as well as emotional aspects of horseback riding, which is why physicians sometimes refer their patients to the Flag Creek Road facility, near Oroville’s Table Mountain.

The autumn session begins Monday (Sept. 12), following the preceding Saturday’s training for volunteers. Organizers expected 206 students for this academic year, but funding cuts by Butte County nonprofit Connecting Circles of Care (CCOC)—which serves youth with severe behavioral, emotional or mental disturbances—resulted in a loss of tuition money for 28 participants. This latest financial hit follows on the heels of Handi-Riders’ 2009 loss of state funding from Far Northern Regional Center, which covered tuition for 70 percent of its students. Thirty percent of those ended up dropping out of the program, as they were unable to pay the $250 required for an eight-week session.

Despite its latest setback, the organization will continue to serve people from Chico, Gridley and Oroville.

“We reach so many different ethnicities, so many different worlds,” Bernard said. “The common denominator at Handi-Riders is the horse.”

Handi-Riders Executive Director Suzanne Bernard.


Handi-Riders began in 1981 as a pilot program, a Chico-based collaboration between local equestrians and the Butte County Office of Education’s Special Education department. The facility moved to Durham, then to its current property off Highway 70 in 2005—right around the time Bernard joined the volunteer corps.

Bernard became volunteer coordinator in 2009, assistant executive director last year and executive director this June. She oversees a staff of seven, including five instructors certified by the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH) International.

Helpers find the experience energizing. “You go home feeling great,” Bernard said. “It’s as therapeutic for our volunteers as for our riders.”

Handi-Riders’ curriculum teaches people with disabilities not only how to ride but also to care for horses. Students get exercise, core strength, confidence and connectivity with other living things. Some students have physical challenges; others are autistic or at-risk youth.

“We’re reaching out in so many ways to so many different people,” Bernard said. “It’s amazing to see a child or young teenager on these huge horses, and how perfectly at ease and trusting they are of the animal.

“If they are withdrawn or emotionally disturbed, they forget all about that when they get up on that horse. If they have problems walking—if they have to use a wheelchair or leg braces—that’s all forgotten. Because when they’re up on that horse they’re like anyone else, and they get to do things that a lot of people don’t get to do.”

Parents agree.

“My daughter Rachel began riding with Handi-Riders in 1994 and I help as one of her side-walkers,” writes Denise Brightwell in the program’s April newsletter. “I have seen such growth in my daughter as well as many of the students over the years. For instance, some children cry when they mount their horse for the first time but by the end of that class, they are laughing and having a great time. They don’t want it to end!”

The organization’s 30th anniversary year has brought both elation and disappointment to Handi-Riders. On the plus side: a facilities upgrade. On the minus side: the aforementioned financial setback.

Handi-Riders previously had two open-air arenas for classes. July brought completion of a covered arena, 80 feet by 140 feet, which will enable instructors to conduct classes year-round, rain or shine.

Meanwhile, Bernard—a volunteer even in her management position—is seeking out alternate funding sources in the hope of re-enrolling participants from CCOC. Donations help defray operating costs along with tuition expenses for students needing scholarships. Handi-Riders intended to buy the ranch it uses, but instead wound up having to lease it.

“It’s all very serious, and yet we try to make it all so much fun,” Bernard said. “It’s supposed to be an enjoyable experience for everyone, and it’s not only enjoyable but it’s beneficial. It’s a win-win for everybody.”