Willie Wonka, a 20-year-old mixture of Arab, Shetland, Haflinger and Morgan, came to Blue Rider Stables in 1997 with a thyroid condition and other ailments.
He was fortunate to find a place where animals and humans are treated with compassion and respect. Willie’s doing fine, and beyond that he’s the stable’s “most reliable pony,” says executive director Christine Sierau.
Reliability here means a horse that is well-suited to therapeutic riding for two-legged animals. Blue Rider Stables helps people with disabilities to acquire basic equestrian skills like balance and control. In the process, the riders develop confidence and self-esteem.
“Any disability that you can think of has probably been on a horse here,” says Sierau, mentioning students that were blind, deaf or autistic.
There have also been cases of Asperger’s, Huntington’s disease, Down syndrome, dyslexia, arthritis, substance abuse, and a host of other physical and emotional issues. Blue Rider doesn’t claim to cure anything and the staff doesn’t harp on the illness.
“Our focus is on the individual, the person,” says Sierau, “not the diagnosis. ‘Holistic’ is a very good word for us. We don’t look at the disability. We look at the whole person.”
Founded in 1991, the nonprofit sits on 12 acres of pasture and woodlands of pine, cedar and apple trees in the Berkshires in South Egremont, Massachusetts. The horses’ grazing space expands to 28 acres through the generosity of neighbors opening their land.
These days there are 13 horses and three donkeys accommodating students who range in age from 18 months to 82 years. An Icelandic cross pony ambles about the paddock with a Tennessee walking horse. An Appaloosa gelding munches hay alongside a Belgian draft horse. Each animal has its own biography on the stable’s website.
“All of our horses come from places where they needed a second chance in life,” says Sierau, who perceives a kind of mystical serendipity in the animals’ winding up at Blue Rider. “I strongly believe that these horses coming here is as much their doing as ours. They have a purpose, a life, a job.”
Many come from lives of neglect. They were underfed or kept on a short tether or left languishing alone. Sometimes a horse is orphaned when his owner dies.
I notice that the animals aren’t wearing saddles or horseshoes (unless they need them for podiatric reasons). “We don’t use bits,” says Wendy Fulco, a Blue Rider staff member. “And we ride bareback often.”
The barns aren’t divided into individual stalls to avoid isolating these very social animals. Some of the horses with infirmities have been treated by chiropractors or other alternative veterinary care. I can’t speak for the efficacy of Chinese herbs or myotherapy, but I will vouch for the apparent well-being of the horses.
Fulco herself has been treated here for neck pain. “When you ride bareback, you have to relax your legs, your bottom.” She describes the relief from the tension and stiffness as transcendent. “It was an emotional and a spiritual balancing. It was just amazing.”
Blue Rider is looking to expand its indoor riding circle, used for lessons and therapy in foul weather. The operation depends on individual donations to exist, so check out their website if you wish to help out.
Sierau doesn’t refer to Blue Rider as an “animal rescue,” as that might encourage less-than-conscientious people to furtively drop off unwanted horses or other animals at the property. It is very much a sanctuary for these elegant equines, however, as they are loved and given purpose. They give great value in return.
(Mike Di Paola writes on preservation and the environment for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the writer of this column: Mike Di Paola at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff in New York at email@example.com.