CARBONDALE, Colorado - Did you know that a horse's gait is similar to that of a human being? Well, it's true, say Pat Horwitz and her daughter Sydney Horwitz, both of Sopris Therapy Services. That's why horses are used to help people with disabilities.
"Riding stimulates nerves, muscles and the brain," explained Pat, director of the organization. "It programs the whole body to put it all together." Besides, sitting astride a horse outdoors in the heart of the Rocky Mountains is good for the soul.
Sopris Therapy Services (STS) was founded in the Roaring Fork Valley almost 20 years ago. Pat has been involved since 2000, when STS moved from Missouri Heights to the Aspen Equestrian Center behind Catherine Store.
STS provides programs for all ages, including summer camps for kids, a Western riding camp for teens, a toddler program with Mountain Valley Developmental Services, and the Horses for Heroes program for disabled veterans. So far this year, STS has served about 300 people.
STS also works with Challenge Aspen and other organizations and agencies throughout the valley, including at-risk youth who are sentenced by the court to perform useful public service.
"They come for the work," said Pat, "and stay for the happiness."
Some become summer employees after completing their sentences or volunteer on their own.
"Those kids are prompt, they do good work, and we need them," said Pat.
The size of the paid staff varies. Most work in the summer. In the winter, STS offers hippotherapy with physical therapists and therapeutic riding. The difference, explained Sydney, who is the STS program director, is that with therapeutic riding, clients learn to ride and steer the horse by themselves.
"It's a riding lesson with a goal," she said. "They're learning to work with their disability."
Pat and Sydney are full of stories about STS successes, and most bring tears to their eyes. Their favorite seems to be the one about Dan, a veteran who served in Iraq in the U.S. Army's 2nd Infantry Division, Ghost Recon Platoon. He has post-traumatic stress disorder and suffered a severe head injury during combat, which resulted in brain damage and the loss of his left eye.
Dan participated in the Horses for Heroes program where he met Montana, a mustang from Wyoming's White Mountain herd. Sydney does her best to match vets to particular horses and had a hunch that Montana and Dan would work well together.
"It was love at first sight," she said. That was more than a year ago. "Dan made such a connection with Montana that we gave him the horse."
STS doesn't usually give horses to clients, but this was an exception.
A video documents the day Dan got his horse. He is grooming Montana in the barn. The white mustang's mane is bedecked with ribbons and beads. Someone says, "That's your horse, Dan." After a moment, Dan says, "It's mine? You mean, my horse?" and falls to his knees in tears.
"We felt like it would give new meaning to his life," said Pat. Later this month, STS will deliver Montana to Dan, who lives with his wife in Westcliffe.
Pat and Sydney tell other success stories that are just as heartwarming and show a visitor photos of beaming children in the saddle.
The Aspen Equestrian Center, with two large indoor arenas, hay barn, an office, full kitchen and bathrooms plus outdoor paddocks for all 15 horses and plenty of room for summer programs, has been the perfect home for STS, said Pat on a recent tour of the facility. But that must change in December.
The ranch owner has sold the property to Ross Montessori School, and STS must be out by Dec. 1. Pat said Sopris Therapy Services will continue somewhere else.
"I can't do that to the children," she said. "They're making so much progress."
STS will move to Pat's home, between Carbondale and El Jebel, until she finds a new facility. Her place has room for some of the horses, and friends have stepped in to board the rest.
An indoor arena is tops on her wish list, but she'll make do with what she has until something better comes along.
"I'll never give up," she promised. "These little kids will be getting therapy in my backyard until they're 25!" Meanwhile, STS will carry on as usual at the Aspen Equestrian Center through November.