“I keep coming to Giant Steps
because I love the people
and the animals,
and the great affection
I witness between both.”

-A Giant Steps Team Member

About Giant Steps

Every year, hundreds of people come to Giant Steps Therapeutic Equestrian Center, wanting to break down barriers that may keep them from reaching their full potential. We serve people representing a wide a range of ages, disabilities, and needs. Through our equine therapy programs, we assist them in achieving their physical, mental, and social goals to lead richer, more independent lives.

As a nonprofit, we rely on our generous donors and dedicated team of volunteers to create a safe space and provide enriching and enjoyable programs. Joining Giant Steps is ultimately about joining an inclusive community, where different people connect and champion for each other’s success.

Our Mission

Giant Steps is dedicated to enriching lives through the power of horses, team and community. Through the excellence of our equine assisted programs, people of all ages, means, and challenges experience the extraordinary benefits of therapeutic riding and activities.

Our Story

At Giant Steps, we strongly believe that all people can break down barriers to lead richer, more independent lives, regardless of the disabilities or challenges they may face. We have harnessed the therapeutic power of horses since 1998 to help people of all ages overcome their physical, emotional, behavioral, cognitive and developmental challenges. Since then, the clients we’ve served have represented more than 60 distinct disabilities and challenges as well as members of our military.

At times, people come to Giant Steps for more than therapy. They also want an enjoyable, social activity and a place to connect with others. Programs we offer range from mounted therapeutic riding classes to ground equine facilitated learning lessons that help clients improve their physical strength and also enhance their emotional and social capabilities. Over the years we have experienced many stories of transformation, seen our clients become physically stronger, more socially engaged, and emotionally aware. This is what drives us.

Beyond our quality programming, Giant Steps is also about community. We work to create a safe space where people can come and share their experiences with other families. It’s a place where, regardless of the disabilities or challenges people may be experiencing, they have the opportunity to bond with our horses, our dedicated instructors and volunteers, and other like-minded people who are all championing for their success. Here, one person’s success is a success for the entire Giant Steps community.

Our Standards

We are proud to be accredited by the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International, otherwise known as PATH. Being accredited by PATH International means that we go above and beyond to hold ourselves to a higher standard of care. We work tirelessly to maintain our accreditation so that our clients feel assured they are getting the possible treatment.

What PATH accreditation ensures:

    • PATH-accredited instructors (training, licensure, certification and qualifications are met)
      • Instructors must complete education hours each year to maintain accreditation
  • Equine standards
      • Characteristics of each horse must be matched with a client’s needs and the proposed activities
      • Each horse must be evaluated and adequately trained for the work to be performed
    • Upholding equine welfare and management standards; horses are assured to be given a high level of care
    • Highest safety/care standards for clients
      • Clients are properly evaluated at intake to make sure that therapeutic riding is an appropriate activity
      • Medical and personal about the client is always considered confidential
      • Periodic re-assessments of clients, as their conditions/disabilities are subject to change
  • PATH-accredited facility
      • Emergency procedures and safety regulations in place
      • Facilities are maintained in good repair and ADA compliant
    • Always emphasizing the safety of clients, volunteers, and horses

Our Team

Beth Porter
Executive Director
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Julie Larson
Program Director, PATH Certified Instructor, Equine Specialist in Mental Health & Learning
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Katherine Theus
Development & Communications Associate
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Jen McWherter
Head Instructor, PATH Certified Instructor, Equine Specialist in Mental Health & Learning
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Tucker Ricioli
Office Manager
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Meghan Farley
Volunteer Coordinator & PATH Certified Instructor
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Sean Willer
Facility Manager & PATH Certified Instructor
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Cynthia Bartel
Bookkeeper
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Our Instructors

Kayla Andersen
PATH Certified Instructor
Amy Barbaro
PATH Certified Instructor
Jenn Collins
PATH Certified Instructor
Chrissie Cutting
PATH Certified Instructor
Nicole DeVito
PATH Certified Instructor
Debbie Gardner
PATH Certified Instructor
Holly Hansen
PATH Certified Instructor
Sue Rickard
PATH Certified Instructor
Mariah Shields
PATH Certified Instructor
Hillary Werhane
PATH Advanced Certified Instructor

Our Horses

AliSponsored by Barbara Malatesta

Ali

Ali (short for Aldente) was born in 1997 and joined Giant Steps in Summer 2019. An Oldenburg and a retired dressage superstar, she is loving her new life as a therapeutic riding horse. Ali is on lease to us from her owner Patricia Hart through her trainer Tracey Hill. Ali is unflappable and eager to bring along our riders. She has a ton of training and teaches how to use every aid with precision, and is sponsored by Barbara Malatesta.

BellePartially sponsored by Brenda Bottum

Belle

Belle, a Belgian cross, was born in 2004 and joined Giant Steps in 2017. She came to us from the family of one of our previous riders, and loves the attention of the busy Giant Steps Mabie Barn. She is the biggest mare in the barn (and has the biggest hooves!), but is a gentle giant. Belle’s stature can be intimidating, but those who ride her find that she is willing and kind, giving them a sense of confidence. Belle teaches growth and transition. She is partially sponsored by Brenda Bottum.

Corky Available for sponsorship

Corky

A Morgan, Corky was born in 1993, and joined Giant Steps at the age of 17. They say opposites attract; unlike his best friend Darren, Corky likes to stir things up in the herd, and enjoys bossing the other horses around. He does especially well with riders who need to work on balance, and thrives with an audience. Corky teaches strength, and is available for sponsorship.

Darren Sponsored by Kelly Moore Paint

Darren

A Quarter horse, Darren was born in 1996, and joined Giant Steps at the age of 14. He is one of the most dependable and versatile horses in the barn, and the strong, silent type: calm, stoic and eager to please. Darren teaches gentleness and consistency, and is sponsored by Kelly Moore Paint.

Ellie Sponsored by Abby Steller

Ellie

Ellie, a Connemara pony, was born in 2005, and joined Giant Steps in 2018. Ellie may be the smallest horse in the barn, but she is strong and very eager to please. She loves being groomed and it can take a while with the thick mane and tail that she has. Ellie teaches determination, and is sponsored by Abby Steller.

Excel Sponsored by Patricia McHugh Rames in honor of Jim McHugh

Excel

A Zangershiede, Excel was born in 1995, and joined Giant Steps at the age of 17. He was awarded the Region 11 PATH Horse of the Year in 2016, and is one of our steadiest horses. His easy-going nature appeals to a variety of riders, and he stands out as being a friendly "therapist" who creates a special bond with many of our students. Excel teaches communication, and is sponsored by Patrichia McHugh Rames in honor of Jim McHugh.

Fiona Sponsored by Rocio Haas

Fiona

Fiona, a paint, was born in 1997 and joined Giant Steps in 2018. Fiona has done a little bit of everything. She has been showed in English, jumped, worked as a lesson horse, and has dabbled in western and dressage. Because of her vast life experience, Fiona will not immediately assume you are worthy of being in charge, but once you convince her she will do anything for you. Fiona teaches trust, and is sponsored by Rocio Haas.

Lena Sponsored by Devon McCauley

Lena

Lena is a Quarter Horse, born in 2003, who spent her summers riding trails with her owner in Idaho. When her owner passed away she started her new career as an equine therapist at Giant Steps in Summer 2017. Lena quickly settled in at Giant Steps and started working with many different riders in all different types of classes. The common thread is that all of her riders love her sweet demeanor and her super soft muzzle. She is as fun to love on as she is to ride. Lena teaches loyalty, and is sponsored by Devon McCauley.

NickerSponsored in celebration of MamaSan 1932, and by Evelyn Greene

Nicker

Nicker was born in 2001, and joined Giant Steps in late spring 2018. He was a working ranch horse for many years and then a western show horse. Despite his rugged upbringing, he is the sweetest horse you will ever meet. He loves to snuggle and adores both human and equine companionship. He really does nicker when a friend comes or goes from the barn. Nicker teaches kindness. He is sponsored in celebration of MamaSan 1932, and by Evelyn Greene.

Odee Partially sponsored by Pete Henig

Odee

Odee, a Quarterhorse born in 1997, joined Giant Steps in 2016. He started life as a cutting horse, then became a western lesson horse. In his spare time Odee attended parades and carried flag bearers He is patient and careful with riders who need full support as well as honest and forgiving with those who are learning how to use their reins to steer off lead for the first time. Odee loves people and he is often the first head you see hanging over his stall door upon entering the barn. Odee teaches adaptability, and is partially sponsored by Pete Henig.

Pepe Sponsored by KCS Estates

Pepe

A Tennessee Walker, Pepe was born at Giant Steps in 2002. The barn comedian, he is affectionate and loves to give and receive attention. He has a playful attitude, and his boisterous nature draws the rider’s attention and has a calming effect, enabling the rider to focus and concentrate. Pepe teaches a sense of humor, and is sponsored by KCS Estates.

Scarlet Available for sponsorship

Scarlet

Born at Giant Steps in 2001, Scarlet is a Tennessee Walker, and the Grand Dame of the barn. Scarlet is a benevolent leader and she carefully protects her rider as one of her own. Scarlet teaches confidence and is available for sponsorship.

Tiki Sponsored by the Figueirinhas Family

Tiki

Tiki is an Arabian, born in 2002, who came to Giant Steps in Summer 2017 from Tamber Bey Vineyards. Tiki was an endurance horse for many years and has covered a lot of miles on a lot of trails. He easily transitioned to arena riding, and does everything with flare and elegance. All of our riders have different strengths and ways of doing things, and Tiki teaches everyone how to do it all with style. He is sponsored by the Figueirinhas Family.

Our Board of Directors

Susan Wayland, Chair
Chief Financial Officer and Director of Operations, San Francisco Day School

Dean McCauley, Treasurer
Retired Partner, Ernst & Young LLP

Jane Rodger Whatmore, Secretary
Project Management, Film/TV Production

Jennifer Emmert Evans
Co-owner, COO Whidbey Tea

Zé Figueirinhas
Managing Director, JLL

Toni Forsberg
Senior Director of Human Resources, Medtronic

Fay Li
Account Director, Fenton Communications

Alycia Mondavi
Marketing, C. Mondavi & Family, Dark Matter Wines

Bridget Twomey
Executive Director, The White Barn Project

Our Founders

Robert Pope and Lee Justice were enjoying their retirement after moving from the Bay Area to Montana, where they raised Tennessee Walkers. One day a friend told them about the benefits of horseback riding for children with physical and mental disabilities. Robert and Lee realized they had the time and resources to create a therapeutic riding center, an idea that felt right to them.

In 1996, they sold their ranch and brought their 12 horses to Petaluma. They spent the next two years building three barns, a riding arena and a training arena on 23 acres. They moved their offices into a small home on the property, got their nonprofit status approved, and looked for a staff. “One day, someone — I’ll never know who — put a blurb in a cerebral palsy support group newsletter, and the phone started ringing off the hook,” said Pope.

The program began with 10 riders and 19 volunteers, and today has grown to accommodate over 130 riders per week and now offers programs for veterans and active service member families. For their work with Giant Steps, Bob and Lee were awarded the prestigious “Jefferson Award for Public Service” from the Institute of Nonprofit Leadership in Washington D.C. in 2006.  A year later, they received the “Real Heroes” award from the American Red Cross. Robert and Lee remained supportive of the program until their deaths in 2014.