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“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 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 Commitment

Giant Steps strives to create a culture of belonging by fostering an inclusive, safe, and affirming community for the people we serve and for our horses. Our commitment to equity and inclusion cuts across ability, race, gender, and backgrounds, ensuring a rich diversity of voices that are respected and fully represented. By bringing together people of different abilities and life experiences, we grow, learn, and make our program and our community stronger.

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 as a Premier Accredited Center by the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International, aka PATH International. 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

Elise Boutet
Volunteer Coordinator, PATH Certified Instructor
Julie Larson
Program Director, PATH Certified Instructor, Equine Specialist in Mental Health & Learning
Libby Porzig
Executive Director
Jen McWherter
Head Instructor, PATH Certified Instructor, Equine Specialist in Mental Health & Learning
Sean Willer
Facility Manager & Riding Instructor
Audrey Draper
Barn Manager
Ashley Ziehm
Business Manager & Certified Masterson Method Equine Specialist

Our Instructors

Amy Barboro
PATH Certified Instructor
Nicole DeVito
PATH Certified Instructor
Debbie Gardner
PATH Certified Instructor
Holly Hansen
PATH Certified Instructor
Sue Rickard
PATH Certified Instructor

Our Board of Directors

Toni Forsberg, Chair
Global Human Resources Leader; Medtronic

Dean McCauley, Treasurer
Retired Partner; Ernst & Young LLP

Debra Beresini, Secretary
Co-Owner; Black Dog Ranch
CEO: Invencor; inc.

Julie Atwood
Founder & Executive Director; HALTER Project

Christina Henkel 
M. A., Licensed Marriage, Family Therapist

Karmen Johnson
CEO; Edible, Inc.

Cindi Pérez
Chief Operating Officer; Stifel Investment Services

Christina Wang 
Occupational Medicine; The Permanente Medical Group

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.