Swiftsure Ranch

Therapeutic Riding Center Helps People With Disabilities

Deanna Devey Nov 1, 2017

Nestled on about 200 acres in the Sawtooth Mountains near Bellevue, Idaho, is a place where children and adults experience nature and learn to ride horses despite physical, mental or emotional challenges.

That place is Swiftsure Ranch, a therapeutic riding center for people with disabilities or illnesses, where riders ages 2 and up experience healing, enrichment and comfort by bonding with horses.

“The magic of Swiftsure is why I’m here,” says Lisa Scales, program manager. “Seeing the smiles and happiness of the people who come makes every day unique.”

Riders face a variety of challenges, including spinal cord injuries, multiple sclerosis, Down syndrome and depression. Swiftsure also partners with schools for the deaf and blind, cancer camps, and veterans organizations.

Elizabeth Bunce, vice president of development on Swiftsure’s board of directors, started volunteering after her college roommate had a ski accident that resulted in quadriplegia. Bunce volunteered as a side walker and saw firsthand the benefits her friend received from therapeutic riding.

“Watching what Swiftsure did for her was really emotional for me,” Bunce says. “It was the only thing that brought her physical improvement and relaxation.” 

It Started With a Dream

Kristy Pigeon started the ranch about 27 years ago with a dream of getting people with disabilities on a horse and giving them the benefits of bonding with an animal, Bunce says.

What started as a nine-acre ranch has now expanded to 191 acres, including miles of riding trails, a campground and enclosed arena. Eighteen horses serve more than 250 riders. Participants receive 4,200 lesson hours each year — all at no cost to them.

The riding programs are available to anyone 2 years or older who has been diagnosed with a disability or challenge. To participate, Swiftsure requires only an application and referral from a doctor or licensed individual.

Equine Therapy

Instructors customize all lessons to the individual rider, or in some cases where riding isn’t possible, the horse groomer. Every effort is made to get participants onto a horse, however. In some cases, it takes special lift machinery, four volunteers and two instructors to mount a rider.

“Once they’re on the horse, the rhythmic motion of it walking is the closest thing to a human gait,” Bunce says. “For a rider with physical needs who perhaps can’t walk, this helps their flexibility, balance and muscle strength. It’s the only motion other than walking that can produce that result.”

While the horses provide many physical benefits, they also provide emotional ones.

“I had a child who came for the first time to visit the barn, and every horse put their head over their stall to look at him,” Scales says. “He turned and looked at me and said, ‘They want to meet me. Nobody’s ever wanted to meet me before.’ … That child had never even ridden on a horse, never even touched a horse, but the magic started the second he walked into that horse barn.”

Community Support

The ranch operates through the support of donors and volunteers. About 90 percent of its budget comes from private donations, with the remainder generated from grants. Every year, volunteers give nearly 8,000 hours while donors provide hundreds of thousands of dollars at the annual Cowboy Ball fundraiser.

“It’s just an amazing place,” Bunce says. “It’s a place where everyone who visits for any reason leaves feeling better than when they got there.”

Photos courtesy of Swiftsure Ranch

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