On a recent Saturday, children were all smiles and giggles as they rode forward, backward and stood on horses at the J.F. Shea Riding Center in San Juan Capistrano.
The activities were not just fun for the kids, but highly beneficial—the center is one of the top therapeutic horseback riding centers in the country, serving an estimated 1,000 clients with a range of disabilities with the help of more than 20 horses and hundreds of volunteers.
Shea, which is dedicated to improving the lives of people with disabilities, offers a wide assortment of equine-assisted activities and therapies on 8 acres of land backing up to the San Juan Capistrano open space. A 21,000-square-foot, two-story building on the property offers additional therapeutic programs and services for people and their families.
The center, celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, has even become a model for similar equine programs across the country and around the world, but when it started in 1978 it had fairly humble beginnings.
The Shea Center was founded by Fran Joswick, who had worked as a social worker who set up social, vocational and residential programs for the disabled.
Joswick was a self-described horse person, so when she learned about the Cheff Therapeutic Riding Center in Augusta, Michigan, and their programs to help the disabled, she wanted to do something similar in Southern California.
“I’ve been fortunate to have the privilege of education that gave me the skill bank to kind of do this thing,” Joswick said. “I’ve always been an avid horse person so I decided that this was going to be my new mission: to combine these two interests into something that would benefit people.”
Joswick started the Orange County Riding Center along with along with Derek Lewis and Nancy Lewis as founding board members.
At that time the operation was fairly small; there was one director (Fran), two volunteers, and a borrowed half Connemara pony. The Lewis’ son, Michael Lewis, who has Cerebral palsy, was the first student of the center.
Early on, the center did not have a permanent location—Fran and company were keeping at least two horses at Sycamore Creek Stables for a few years before the J.F. Shea Company began donating some funds for a more permanent setting in the early ‘80s. Grant funding followed suit. The center began to grow in notoriety and size.
“I’d say in the first four or five years, we probably had 15 or 20 students and 20 to 25 volunteers and a good board of directors and it kept growing and flourishing,” Joswick said.
Joswick said she remembers working with the children who came into the center was challenging, but extraordinarily rewarding.
She described the joy she had when a child who had come in on a wheelchair was able to walk after some time spent on a horse—the movement of the horse had helped that child with important muscle movement.
The equine exercises were not just wonderful for the parents to watch, she said, but a fun experience for the kids themselves.
“Many of the parents used to complain about their youngster not wanting to go to therapy because it was traditional physical therapy because it was so boring,” she said. “But that physical therapist would do the very same thing on the back of a horse and the child loved it.”
Joswick would eventually move to Hawaii in 1990 and the center was renamed in her honor.
In 1997, current director Dana Butler-Moburg visited the very rustic-looking property, which at that time only had a couple of construction trailers, some pipe corrals and one arena, but she said she instantly fell in sync with the organization and its values.
“I completely fell in love with everything we do,” she said. “I thought, ‘I have to be here.’”
Butler-Moburg said she has tens of thousands of good memories from her tenure as executive director. Many of them involve clients and volunteers, and others involve the horses themselves.
She said she remembers a horse at the center that belonged to Former San Juan Capistrano Mayor Tony Forster that was particularly fond of one of the clients.
“He would nuzzle her little cheek every time he saw this kid. He really liked this little girl,” Butler-Moburg recalled. “These horses have such depth and warmth and love, and it’s just the legacy of this place, the people who love our clients as well as the horses who love our clients.”
Over the years, Butler-Moburg has seen a number of large-scale changes at the center. She saw J.F. Shea donate the land the center was on to the center, giving it a permanent home. The center was then renamed in the company’s honor.
She saw the opening of the Klein Family Education Therapy Center, the large building where additional therapy sessions take place.
She also saw the number of clients grow from 90 to 1,000.
As the center has grown and expanded its programming, it has become a model for other centers. Butler-Moburg said the center has had visitors from elsewhere in the country and the world come to learn about how to do equine therapy.
She said while the Shea Center’s own clients will always remain the priority, a broader goal is helping to make sure that people elsewhere in the country and the world can get the same caliber of programming.
“Shea has become a teacher and a mentor and has come alongside a number of therapeutic riding centers to really help them get stronger and do better programming and help them to have stronger staff,” she said.
But Butler Moburg said what exists now couldn’t have existed without the founders, people like Fran Joswick and the Lewis family.
“What they started 40 years ago, they had such a strong base and commitment to people with disabilities. That has carried forward and continued to improve every year,” she said.
Joswick said she plans to return to the center in the very near future and she said she will take the time to thank the volunteers as well as others who have contributed their time and resources.
“Had it not been for the San Juan community, the region, this program would never have had a chance,” she said. “But because there was a group of people that live in the immediate San Juan area and then the region was so supportive that this all came to fruition.”