For more than 25 years, the Hearts Therapeutic Equestrian Center has been helping people with a variety of disabilities and conditions find a path to a more fulfilling life.
“We use therapeutic horseback riding as a goal to gain more independence and improve life for people with special needs,” explained executive director Kirby Gillespie.
But now the ranch itself is on an important trail — toward a new home.
For the last 20 years, the nonprofit equestrian center has leased property from Santa Barbara County for its operations. The riding facility at 4420 Calle Real is near the Sheriff’s Department, the County Jail and the solid-waste transfer station.
It’s been a great home, Gillespie said — open, hilltop land with sweeping ocean views at a minimal cost.
But the county, which Gillespie said has been generous to the group, has given notice that it will need the land for other uses.
The county has offered to lease another property nearby, Gillespie said, but Hearts Therapeutic is exploring whether other locations might work better in the long term.
Hearts Therapeutic is looking for a flatter piece of property, centrally located between Carpinteria and Gaviota for convenience to the group’s riders. The organization is planning to expand, and has been planning for more stables and possibly a couple more horses to accommodate up to 100 riders.
Running water and a bathroom at the new facility would also be a plus, since those are two things the group has gone without at its current location.
Hearts Therapeutic also has launched a capital campaign to raise money for the move, and possibly the building of a covered arena so riders can be protected during harsh weather conditions.
Gillespie noted that since it was established in 1985, Hearts Therapeutic has changed many lives.
Santa Barbara nonprofit equestrian center, which uses horses to help special-needs clients live better lives, needs to relocate.
As an example, she recalled a boy who had a stroke at 15 months old. One of Hearts Therapeutic’s current riders, his family was told by doctors he would not be able to walk.
The boy began training at Hearts Ranch at the age of 3, and now, in junior high school, he is able to participate in a variety of sports and activities that he and his family never thought he would experience.
Another rider at the ranch, Sue Jackson, fell 40 feet while hiking and survived with a severely broken neck. She uses horseback riding at Hearts Therapeutic as a way to escape the pain and gain back mobility and independence.
“When I’m not here, I use a cane, walker or wheelchair ...,” Jackson said. “I’m constantly aggravated by physical pain ... but what they focus on here is what you can do, not what you can’t do.”
Hearts Therapeutic is set up to handle three types of issues with riders: physical, cognitive and social/emotional needs. The riders have conditions ranging from Down syndrome to cerebral palsy. There is also a special program for veterans coping with post-traumatic stress disorder.
The ranch holds a summer program through which it invites children with both disabilities and average abilities to learn together and enjoy the sport of horseback riding.
Hearts Therapeutic focuses on both the abilities and disabilities of the students, and works to improve both to increase their confidence and skill, said Connie Weinsoff, the program director.
“We look at the abilities of the student, and place them in classes with like-minded people, rather than people with the same disability as them, so they are in class with a variety of different people,” she explained.
The instructors use grooming and directing of the horses, games and trail rides as means of therapy for the riders.
With the success of many of the program’s riders, Hearts Therapeutic has become an important part of the community to many, along with the family and friends. Relocation of the ranch will be a big change to the 70 riders it currently serves, and countless volunteers and instructors.
“We are hoping all of our riders follow us,” said Gillespie. “We are growing, stable and committed to being here for the long haul for the community.”
Hearts Therapeutic held a community forum earlier this month to provide information on the planned move, and how people can help maintain the life-changing establishment at the ranch itself. A second forum is planned for 6 to 7 p.m. May 15.