The grace and healing power of horses brings clients and instructors together at Petaluma’s Giant Steps Therapeutic Equestrian Center where the lives of people facing challenges are enriched and, often, miraculously transformed, on or off a saddle.
“The people are great but the horses are saints,” said Beth Barker, a lifelong horse lover who drives from her home in San Francisco one day each week to volunteer at Giant Steps. She works with riders and lends her extensive horse sense to the well-being of the 14 horses in the therapy program’s stables. She is one of almost 150 volunteers serving the needs of 140 clients using horse therapy to break down barriers to achieve their physical, emotional and social goals.
Clients are from seven Bay Area counties but most are residents of Sonoma and Marin counties.
Barker, a retired banker who strived for financial success so she could own and ride horses, has been volunteering at Giant Steps for 10 years. She said the non-profit is professionally operated and true to its mission: enriching lives – no matter age, financial means or challenges – through the power of horses. And Barker wholeheartedly believes in the power of horses to comfort and heal.
Masterfully guiding this culture of care and enrichment at the non-profit equine therapy program is a passionate staff of six dedicated to improving the lives of people with developmental, physical or emotional challenges. Clients include children with autism, people with debilitating diseases like cerebral palsy, military veterans suffering from the trauma of war, sexually abused women or troubled teenagers breaking free from gangs. The goal is to help clients lead richer, more independent lives by gaining physical strength or coping skills through their interactions while riding, caring or bonding with horses.
“You really know you are making a difference when a client tells you this is the best hour of their week or when a father says his son only smiles when he is on a horse in the arena at Giant Steps. We are rewarded with smiles every day, it keeps us all going,” said Beth Porter, the executive director of Giant Steps.
The rewards of this meaningful work and the abiding sense of community also drive other staff members including Julie Larson, who is the program director, a certified instructor, and an equine specialist in mental health and learning, and Sean Willer, a former volunteer who joined the staff as facility manager. Willer is also a certified instructor in equine therapy.
“It doesn’t get any better than to hear a non-verbal little girl utter her first words ‘brown horse’ while in the program here at Giant Steps,” said Larson who uses her skills to match riders and volunteers with the right horse.
Many of the horses are older and donated to Giant Steps after years of service elsewhere. The horses are carefully evaluated to make sure they are the right fit for the inexperienced, mostly fragile riders in the program. One of the stars of the stable is Souly, a Thoroughbred racehorse who came to Giant Steps in 2019 after retiring from a distinguished career with the US Park Police where he patrolled the Presidio, Marin Headlands and Golden Gate Recreation Area.
Being around horses, intuitive herd animals that have been an integral part of the human experience for thousands of years, helps clients gain confidence, build trust and form healthier boundaries. Moreover, working with and caring for horses helps troubled clients practice empathy and build trusting and authentic relationships. Some clients privately tell their equine partner secrets they tell no one else.
It all happens at Giant Steps’ three-acre complex that includes an expansive covered arena, stables, office and family gathering lounge. Giant Steps is located on leased ground at the Sonoma Horse Park, a world-class horse show park and boarding facility that unfolds on farmland between Lakeville Highway and the Petaluma River. The Horse Park is just north of the historic Sleepy Hollow Dairy owned by the Herzog family.
Giant Steps is a member of Sonoma County Farm Bureau, the county’s largest and most influential agricultural organization. Porter said her non-profit is very grateful for the assistance that Farm Bureau and its executive director Tawny Tesconi provided during the darkest days of the Covid pandemic when everything shut down including Giant Steps and Sonoma Horse Park. Tesconi diligently worked with county leaders and health officials to develop protocols to allow Giant Steps’ largest fundraiser of the year, a six-day horse show at Sonoma Horse Park to move forward.
“We are very thankful to Farm Bureau and for Tawny’s work in outlining the protocols that allowed us to resume this critical event, which is done outside and by the nature of riding is socially distanced,” said Porter, who has been executive director for 10 years. She comes from the non-profit management world and readily admits her expertise is not horses but fund-raising, administration and strategic planning.
Giant Steps’ annual budget is $1 million, with 90 percent of the money raised through fund-raising and the remaining from fees paid by clients. But no one is turned away if they are unable to pay.
Porter succeeded Robert Pope who founded Giant Steps in 1998 on a 23-acre ranch in west Petaluma after a friend told him about the benefits of horseback riding for children with physical and mental disabilities. Pope and his wife Lee Justice, who raised Tennessee Walking Horses, dedicated their time, resources and horses to a therapeutic riding center that has grown and prospered over the decades. The program began with 10 riders and 19 volunteers and now accommodates almost 150 riders per week. In 2009, Giant Steps moved to the Sonoma Horse Park on Lakeville Highway. The Popes remained active supporters of the non-profit they founded until their deaths in 2014.
Porter said the needs are great -and growing- for the services that Giant Steps offers, with a waiting list of people eager for the benefits that equine therapy can provide. Porter said the non-profit’s board of directors, chaired by Toni Forsberg, who is the global director of human resources at Medtronic, is considering a major expansion, which could include the purchase of additional property and the construction of new facilities. A decision on the proposed expansion is expected by the end of the year. If approved, a capital campaign would be launched to raise the money.
The staff at Giant Steps welcomes serving more people and expanding the program’s reach because they know it is making a huge difference. Willer, who oversees facilities at Giant Steps, knows firsthand about the healing that takes place with horses and being part of a safe and nurturing community.
Willer, 50, who grew up in Santa Rosa and showed beef cattle as a member of the Santa Rosa Future Farmers of America, had a stroke in 2007 when he was 36 years old and working as a manager for UPS. The stroke was a shock to Willer, who suffered short term memory loss, and to his family because he was fit and athletic, routinely working out and playing sports. It ended his career at UPS and threw him into depression.
Guided and mentored by his grandmother, Willer was encouraged to become a volunteer as a way to climb back. They did some research and learned about equine therapy and Giant Steps. The idea of being around horses appealed to Willer because he once had ambitions of being an equine veterinarian while a student majoring in animal science at UC Davis.
Willer served as a valued volunteer at Giant Steps for five years when the management team, aware of his skills and caring ways for man and beast, offered him a job as the facility manager. Willer said his role at Giant Steps has been life-changing.
“This place saved me and I can’t imagine being any place else,” said Willer. “Every day I get to help people and horses but it’s helping me just as much to be a part of their lives.”