Obstacles ahead

Local equine therapy program at risk of closing for lack of funds

Harry Moreno rides Cinders, a quarter horse who is part of the Handi-Riders equine therapy program based in Oroville.

Harry Moreno rides Cinders, a quarter horse who is part of the Handi-Riders equine therapy program based in Oroville.

Photo by Mason Masis

Make a donation:
Donations to Handi-Riders can be sent to P.O. Box 1885, Chico, CA 95927. People can also donate used riding equipment or volunteer to sponsor a horse for a month.

Eight-year-old Harry Moreno sat atop Cinders, a 19-year-old quarter horse, and approached a row of orange traffic cones and several 6-foot vertical pylons meant to slow his gait. Waiting patiently for his time to act, Harry carefully scanned the course and planned his attack. Unwavering—and with a wide smile—Harry swerved Cinder through the cones and deftly navigated in between makeshift goalposts at a relaxed trot, sending ripples through his Captain America sweatshirt. Finishing his lap, Harry returned to the starting point ready for another round.

“He was a natural from the start, which was a pleasant surprise for us,” said Harry’s father, Paul Moreno.

Harry, who has autism spectrum disorder, is a student of Handi-Riders of Northern California Inc., a nonprofit equine-assisted therapy program based in Oroville. Handi-Riders helps students with cognitive or physical disabilities work on focus, balance and social interaction. For Harry, five years of that therapy has translated into better communication skills and greater confidence and coordination. Plus, Harry clearly “enjoys being on the horse,” Moreno said.

Unfortunately, Handi-Riders, in its 35th year of operation, is facing financial difficulties that threaten its future. “Finances are always an issue,” said Dana McFarland, equine manager.

It costs the nonprofit $265 a month per horse (the program has six) and soon Hand-Riders will have two more to board, feed and farrier, McFarland said. Though the quarterly program costs $240 per student, many students pay little to nothing to attend, thanks to scholarships provided by Handi-Riders.

Board President Mike Wrobel said the program pays an additional $3,000 a month in rent and insurance. Currently, Handi-Riders is just scraping by, he said, and “almost to the point where we have to close.”

“[The board is thinking], ‘Oh my gosh, are we gonna make payroll?’” he said. “If you can’t make payroll, you have to shut down immediately.”

If Handi-Riders’ situation does not improve, he said, they could shut down in weeks.

Founded in 1981, the program focuses on children and adults with attention deficit disorder, autism spectrum disorder and cerebral palsy, among other disabilities, and has helped rehabilitate people recovering from serious injuries—including students who were encased in full-body casts, McFarland said. McFarland, who started with Handi-Riders as a volunteer in 2014 and became equine manager in 2015, said the program caters to clients between 5 and 24 years old, though their oldest student is 88.

As equine manager, it’s McFarland’s job to make sure the program’s horses have the temperament to work with people with disabilities, she said while petting Honey, a Norwegian Fjord mare who was donated to Handi-Riders in 2011. McFarland said Honey is her “benchmark” horse because she is calm and can tolerate the occasional unruly rider.

McFarland said the program stayed on budget last year. She added, however, that the two additional horses are needed to accommodate their 30- to 35-person program size and to help spread the workload across more horses.

McFarland praised the efforts of volunteers and past fundraisers, but said the program is in dire need of monthly fundraisers that can bring in thousands of dollars.

“When push comes to shove, we need money to operate,” she said.

Handi-Riders, she said, is changing the lives of people with disabilities. She recalled a story of a child with autism hugging one of the instructors—probably the first noncaregiver the child had ever hugged—as she summed up how she felt about Handi-Riders: “It’s a labor of love,” she said.

Moreno echoed her.

“[Handi-Riders] is a fantastic program and does so much for so many individuals,” he said. “It offers a fantastic service that would not be available otherwise.”