By Amy Brassil
When I was 14 years old my mother read an article in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat about a new nonprofit that was looking for volunteers. A newly retired couple from the telecom world had started a therapeutic equestrian center. Their original plans of riding through retirement on the backs of their Tennessee Walking horses had not provided the excitement and challenge that both Robert Pope and Lee Justice had hoped for, so therapeutic riding became their next adventure.
They had purchased a property in southern Petaluma. The property had two homes but was otherwise bare. They built an arena, three barns, fenced in over a dozen pastures and paddocks, brought their 25 purebred Tennessee Walkers and their trainer, and set up shop. The trainer, John Champion, would handle the day to day operations of their Tennessee Walking Horse breeding and show operation, Walking Horse Farm, and they, along with two other employees would run their new nonprofit, Giant Steps Therapeutic Equestrian Center.
When I came to the volunteer training, I learned that they had chosen four of their own horses and were currently serving 16 riders. These were mostly children with a variety of developmental disabilities. I was hooked. As an always-pony-obsessed girl who also understood what it was like to live with disabilities – my mom was a paraplegic and in a wheelchair my whole life – it just fit. I quickly figured out ways to carpool with staff members and volunteered as much as I could. I watched non-verbal children say their first words, “horse” and “walk on.” I saw countless people smile with every ounce of their being because of the joy that was present in every lesson. At the same time, I watched myself develop into a confident young woman because of the opportunities for growth that I was given by Giant Steps. I eventually stepped into the role of Volunteer Coordinator and Instructor. I was able to watch the program grow, quite literally. An old barn favorite, Mered, taught me how to sidewalk; I got to take Scarlet on her first ride to the beach; and I was there when Pepe was born, a true goof ball from day one.
Fast forward 15 years later. No longer an employee, I am still lucky enough to call myself a friend of the program! I am now a 3rd grade teacher, and have enjoyed being able to spend summers volunteering on at the property on Lakeville Highway. The spirit and joy remain, but of course there have been additional steps made. One specific step…the trot! There is now a beautiful barn filled with an amazing selection of horses; no longer just the gaited guests from Walking Horse Farm. Last time I checked the staff was definitely more than four people, and I’m pretty sure there are at least 20 riders in a single day. Those riders continue to make their own Giant Steps every day. I know this because now one of those riders is mine.
Bobby is four and a half and full of life! He greets every day with excitement and a smile, even though part of those days has always been “missing” for him. Bobby has hearing loss, communication and speech delays, and general developmental delays. There has always been so much that he hasn’t been able to understand or hasn’t been able to enjoy because he doesn’t have the skills to regulate his body and participate.
As soon as he was old enough, I added him to the participant waitlist. I can truly say that Giant Steps has given me peace, joy, a sense of belonging, and a skillset that I could not have acquired anywhere else. If there was any chance that some of that could be passed to Bobby, I wanted that for him! Well, not only did he receive all of that, he received so much more! The summer we started riding, Bobby went from two word phrases to four word sentences. His core strength increased, and his gross motor skills progressed in – you guessed it – Giant Steps. Beyond that, the part that still brings tears to my eyes, is that for the first time he truly had a sense of accomplishment. I will never forget how proud Bobby looked the first time he rode Nicker. He held those reins, he said “walk on”, and that horse went exactly where he told him to. In that moment Bobby didn’t have any limitations, in his eyes or mine. He was strong and capable, and ready to take on the world. We both have gained so much from this wonderful place. Most importantly, we both now know that Giant Steps are possible.