This is a special year for Giant Steps as it is our 25th Anniversary year. It’s almost impossible to believe that what started as a backyard project has grown into a robust program that has served thousands of children and adults as they explore new boundaries with the loving support of their equine therapists. Robert and Lee’s vision has touched countless lives, and their legacy lives on.
When founders Robert Pope and Lee Justice first retired, they made the bold decision to move to Montana. Robert was an avid fisherman, and in the words of his son had “a River Runs Through It” fantasy of living on the Bitterroot River. On an early visit, however, his son noticed that Robert wasn’t fishing too much. Instead, a neighbor had introduced Robert and Lee to horses, specifically Tennessee Walkers. The pair were immediately drawn to the bond between horses and humans, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Robert and Lee started with a focus on breeding, and quickly realized that the breeding season in Montana was short. In California, the winters were much more tolerable, and they could breed year-round, so they headed south along with their 12 horses. They purchased a beautiful 25-acre ranch property dotted with oak trees on I Street Extension in Petaluma, which they later renamed as Deer Creek Lane because of the creek running through the property and the deer who grazed around it.
They established a thriving breeding business, Walking Horse Farm, which became a nationally sought after breeding program for Tennessee Walkers. They hired a trainer, John Champion, two grooms/barn managers, and an assistant trainer. They built an equestrian facility featuring a six-stall barn made of gorgeous wood slats with a giant tack space, hang-out room, den and office, full wash rack with a medical facility as well as a 30-stall horse motel attached to multi-acre pastures. They incorporated an arena into a sloped hillside with beautiful custom wood fencing as well as round pen.
In 1998, Amy Brasil became one of the first volunteers to work with Robert and Lee, helping to take care of the horses. “Their property was amazing in terms of the landscape, the oak trees, the creek, so much natural beauty in that place,” recalls Amy. “Baby horses inhabited the entire property, up to twenty at a time.” Robert’s son jokes that the only building Robert and Lee didn’t focus on was their own home.
That year, Robert and Lee learned of adaptive riding through an article by Alison Zack of High Hopes Therapeutic Riding in Connecticut. Wanting to do something more than just breed, they reached out to learn more. Alison supported Robert and Lee in setting up their nonprofit and getting accredited with the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (then NAHRA). Giant Steps was born. Robert, himself an accomplished guitar player and lover of jazz, named the organization after the fifth album of John Coltrane. Horses, like jazz, were therapeutic to Robert.
Giant Steps began on Deer Creek Lane with six riders and 25 volunteers. Within a year, the program grew to 30 participants and 200 volunteers. By the mid-2000’s, there was a waiting list for both riders and volunteers. “There was truly nothing like this adaptive riding program in the area or adequate disability resources. There wasn’t anything officially established. This was the first organization in Northern California to be accredited by PATH International,” Amy Brasil shares. “The program grew so much in demand because families were desperate for something like this for their children. The program itself brought its own kind of beauty with those who were able bodied to work with those who were limited by so much. They could breakthrough through these limitations that had always held them back, utilizing these exceptional horses, and this natural beauty.”
Amy became the volunteer coordinator and an instructor in the late 90’s. One of her most memorable moments was hearing a boy say his first words at age eight, with his family there to witness it. His first words? Walk On. “This kind of thing happened every day whether it was first words, first steps, a smile. Participants who were struggling in social situations found real friends in their equine and human partners.”
Robert’s daughter, Gabbi, was a frequent volunteer in the early years, and spent weekends at the farm. Son, Chris, however, hadn’t been living locally so first saw what his father was up to when invited to a horse show in Davis. His dad had arranged with the show organizers to include an adaptive riding demonstration. Chris was floored by what he saw and confesses to bawling when he saw the demonstration.
Giant Steps’ first ten years were spent on Deer Creek Lane, but the program eventually outgrew the space. That led Robert to Sonoma Horse Park.