With each new addition to the Shea Center’s barn in San Juan Capistrano, the therapeutic riding center is able to carry out its mission, reaching more clients, providing hippotherapy, adaptive riding lessons and more.
The center’s mission began with one horse and one client with cerebral palsy and grew to 29 therapy horses and nearly 1,500 clients served in 2022, J.F. Shea Center Communications Director Sarah Booth explained.
The center’s equine team grew by two in August, after the Assistance League of Laguna Beach donated $25,000 for the Shea Center to purchase a new horse after several older horses had been retired.
The donation helps the Shea Center to provide adaptive riding lessons, hippotherapy and other forms of therapy for their clients, Booth said.
“It’s the foundational element of everything that we do here,” Booth said. “We’re founded on using the horse because there’s no other machine or system that can do what it does and get the same results.”
The center offers “therapies, adaptive riding, military programs and some first responder programs, so we keep expanding and growing to serve the community and serve the need, but primarily our mission is to serve people with disabilities,” Booth said.
The center is staffed with physical, occupational and speech therapists who help adapt therapies to the clients’ needs.
“We have clients that are aged 2 to almost 90,” Booth said. “It just really depends on each client, and it’s very customized to each client that participates here.”
Clients are also matched with the therapy horse that’s best suited for their needs, and will likely stay with the same horse throughout their time in the program.
Most of the Shea Center’s horses in the past had been donated; however, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the center faced a shortage of horses.
“Before COVID, we would get calls constantly, weekly, of people who were interested in donating horses,” Chief Development Officer Agnes McGlone Swanson said. “Now, a lot of times, those weren’t the right horses for here, but we were constantly getting horses that (Equine Operations Manager Christina Lee) could investigate to see if they were right for us.”
“But it completely stopped; literally, like overnight, it stopped,” Swanson continued. “Here, we’ve gone all these years with just getting donated horses, so we ended up looking into buying horses, which led us to then being pushed to buy our very first horse through an online auction.”
Needing to suddenly buy therapy horses made a big impact on the nonprofit’s budget, Swanson explained.
“We never had a real line item to purchase horses, so we needed to find ways to raise funds, so we created a horse funding program,” Swanson said.
The nonprofit already had a horse sponsorship program, where donors can give $15,000 to cover a year of food and care for a therapy horse. Swanson added that the cost of horses skyrocketed during the pandemic.
The Laguna Beach Assistance League had been donating yearly to the pediatric financial aid and military program, Swanson said, but when they came for their annual visit and learned of the shortage, they came back with an additional $25,000 donation to help purchase a new horse.
“I just really can’t say enough about the Assistance League,” Swanson said. “We’re one of the biggest beneficiaries, but their members just have so much joy in giving. They come here twice a year to have a full tour, and they just get so moved.”
“Some of them have even become volunteers here,” Swanson continued.
The Assistance League of Laguna Beach raises the majority of its funds through its thrift shop on Glenneyre Street.
When looking for a horse, Lee noted that the center needed a Quarter Horse, a type that both the younger clients and military clients could ride.
“Our needs vary,” Lee said. “This time, a Quarter Horse … down the road, maybe a pony, because we need that for hippotherapy clients.”
Adding that with the $25,000 donation in hand, Lee began the search for a horse that fit the center’s needs.
“Christina got to shopping, and it takes a while to find the right horse, but she did such a great job shopping and negotiating that she was able to purchase two,” Swanson said.“So we surprised them the day they came to meet Jericho.”
With the local Assistance League’s donation, the Shea Center purchased Jericho, a dark bay Friesian, Quarter cross, and Boots, a chestnut Quarter Horse.
Whenever the center brings in a new horse, staff takes 90 days to make sure it’s a good fit.
“Sometimes, we know sooner than that, and we can start incorporating them in the program, and then some days, it’s like, oh, maybe we’ll go a little bit more than 90 days; let’s see if it can work,” Lee said.
In testing if the horse is a good fit, Shea Center staff will simulate what the horses might experience during sessions with clients.
“Horses are fight or flight, so a lot of time, most horses are not going to tolerate what we do here, because it’s a lot of screaming kids, a lot of off-balance riders, wheelchairs; they’re usually not used to the wheelchairs,” Lee said. “So they go through a huge training process so we make sure the horse likes it and the clients are going to be safe and our volunteers are safe.”
Lee added that doing physical therapy exercises on a horse often results in the client performing the exercise without even realizing they are in therapy.
Walking past the main arena on Aug. 24, a younger client was riding a horse backward while doing sit-ups. Booth pointed out that the client was going through her physical therapy exercises while riding around the arena on the horse, which makes the exercises more enjoyable.
“These kids are in the therapy gyms three or four times a week doing the same thing in a therapy gym, but they’re on a horse,” Lee said. “They’re making the horse move; they’re in control of something, which is super fun. Playing and throwing a ball off and on a horse is fun, and they’re not thinking they’re doing the therapy. That’s the fun part.”