Rehabilitated horses get a new life helping therapy patients

Ortega Equestrian Center owner Kathy Holman has started a new program, Otra Mas, that aims to rescue and rehabilitate aging horses and train them as therapeutic horses. Photo: Brian Park
Ortega Equestrian Center owner Kathy Holman has started a new program, Otra Mas, that aims to rescue and rehabilitate aging horses and train them as therapeutic horses. Photo: Brian Park

By Brian Park

In a previous life, she was a champion.

Demi racked up win after win while competing in the working cow horse circuit. With a rider coaxing her every move, the tall strawberry roan delighted crowds and drew high scores from judges for her ability to reign in cattle using swift twists, turns and cuts.

But then came the arthritis, a common and extremely painful ordeal for many aging horses. Equine doctors later discovered that Demi’s condition had worsened. The cartilage in her left ankle, just above the hoof, had deteriorated, leaving only bone on bone.

For many horses, such a prognosis would mean sale at an auction, abandonment or euthanasia. Few owners are willing to spend the exorbitant cost to keep a horse that is unable to move or bare the weight of a rider.

But consider Demi one lucky horse.

Thanks to Otra Mas, a new volunteer organization in San Juan Capistrano, aging performance horses in need of rehabilitation—like 24-year-old Demi—are being given a new lease on life and a renewed purpose as therapy horses for adults and children in equine-assisted psychotherapy, or EAP.

In Spanish, Otra Mas means “another one” or “one more.” Kathy Holman, the organization’s president and owner of Ortega Equestrian Center, has always welcomed horses that others have deemed “broken,” either because they are too difficult to work with or have passed their physical prime.

“I’ve always taken in horses and tried to fix them,” Holman said. “I get at least one call a week. I have three horses right now, waiting, that they’d like to have me take in and use.”

Younger horses with fewer physical challenges are able to be trained and ridden in Holman’s lesson programs, separate from Otra Mas. Older horses, around 20 years and up, however, pose additional challenges. They often come with serious ailments that require expensive treatments. Some may also carry emotional scars because they have been trained to serve a purpose since they were born and have developed deep social connections to humans and other horses.

Kathy Holman, president of Otra Mas and owner of Ortega Equestrian Center, places a bridle over Chips, a 9-year-old pinto pony. Photo: Brian Park
Kathy Holman, president of Otra Mas and owner of Ortega Equestrian Center, places a bridle over Chips, a 9-year-old pinto pony. Photo: Brian Park

“These are horses that have been imprinted since they were babies. They’re used to having daily contact with humans,” Holman said. “Some of them, especially our Arabs and good show horses, if you throw them away or throw them in the stall dirty, they get embarrassed. They wonder, ‘What did I do wrong?’ They’ll go stand in the back corner and they’ll be humiliated and not eat.”

Bethany’s Gait, a nonprofit horse rescue organization, use to operate out of Holman’s stables and was able to take on such horses. But after the group relocated to Arizona last November, Holman realized there was a void that needed to be filled. Horses are living much longer lives, Holman said, and there needed to be a program to address that, especially locally, in a city that claims the title of the “Equestrian Capital of the West Coast.”

“Twenty used to be very old, but now we take such good care of them, they live into their 30s,” Holman said. “Most people don’t want to keep their horses if they can’t ride them and go on trail rides, so they’re looking for a place to retire their horse that’s affordable. That’s why they want us because it doesn’t cost anything.”

Retiring a horse at a stable, including all the necessary care, costs around $500 a month or higher. Although they are still awaiting federal approval from the Internal Revenue Service, Otra Mas is a California nonprofit and has been able to house six horses in the program. Ortega Equestrian Center is able to house 130 horses total, according to Holman.

When Otra Mas received Demi, she required an operation that cost between $7,000 and $8,000. While the organization raised money to pay for her medications, local veterinarian Mark Secor from Mission Equine Hospital offered to conduct the procedure.

Demi, a 24-year-old strawberry roan, underwent a four-hour procedure to heal severe, bone-on-bone arthritis. After nine more months of recovery, Demi will be trained to be used as a therapy horse with Otra Mas, a new horse rescue program. Photo: Brian Park
Demi, a 24-year-old strawberry roan, underwent a four-hour procedure to heal severe, bone-on-bone arthritis. After nine more months of recovery, Demi will be trained to be used as a therapy horse with Otra Mas, a new horse rescue program. Photo: Brian Park

“Her condition progressed over a six-month period. She was spending a lot of time lying down. When she did get up, she’d have to rock all the way on her back legs so she didn’t have to carry so much weight,” Secor said. “The surgery took us four hours from start to finish. We put a bone plate into the front of the joint and two screws across to bring it together. Once the joint is fused, there should be a lot less pain.”

Although Demi’s prognosis isn’t “perfect,” Secor said she has responded well and should see gradual improvement in the next nine months. Otra Mas’ other horses include 30-year-old Colonel, a black quarter horse that spent years herding cattle in Texas and Nevada. Madonna, a 20-year-old chestnut mare, competed in several rodeos and worked as a cow horse but came with some foot problems.

Once the horses are completely healed, Holman and her staff will train them to become therapy animals. San Juan Capistrano resident Carol Caddes, a family therapist with a private practice in Newport Beach, is working with Holman to help supervise the staff in conducting EAP sessions.

Patients’ needs can vary, from children and adults going through difficult emotional periods to those recovering from injuries. Although there is no actual horse riding, Caddes said there are real benefits with routine exercises, like walking beside horses, leading them around a pen or simply petting and brushing them.

“Horses are very inclusive. They tend to dial in emotionally with people,” Caddes said. “What happens is if the person is grounded, present and open, the horse will bond with that person and in that bonding, there’s a meta-physiological relation that happens with the two.

“This is not riding. This is about awareness. Anytime you increase your awareness, then you’re able to let go of things from the past, be more present and work through things.”

But the therapy sessions don’t just benefit human patients, Secor noted.

“Kathy stepped in at a great time and is allowing some of these horses to be used in therapy, instead of having to be euthanized or sent to auction,” Secor said. “There’s a saying … ‘The outside of the horse is good for the inside of the man.’ Whether you’re riding a horse or not, it’s good for people. In Demi’s case, it’ll be good to have people around.”

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