Giving a leg up to those with disabilities

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Northwest Therapeutic Riding Center helps participants reach beyond barriers

Today, perhaps more than ever, we are seeing animals in the role of caregivers. Bellingham has a cat café and puppy-petting facilities, and bringing a furry loved one into a store or pub is no longer uncommon.

So, it makes sense that horses would fall into the caregiving category in the same capacity.
While you’re unlikely to find a horse walking into a bar (there’s probably a joke in there somewhere), you will find these stoic, loving creatures at Northwest Therapeutic Riding Center helping people. How? NWTRC accommodates individuals with mental and physical disabilities by providing equine-assisted services. This, in turn, allows people to recognize their full potential, reaching beyond physical and mental barriers to find empowerment and independence.

The calming nature of the riding center horses is a crucial aid for people with cognitive, physical, emotional and social challenges. Participants, volunteers and parents have expressed their amazement at the benefits, balance, muscle tone and strength gained along with increased social interaction, emotional awareness, confidence, impulse control, trust and problem-solving skills.

“I am surprised by how dramatic [my daughter’s] improvement has been,” said one mother of a participant with Down syndrome. “Now, I see her sitting up tall, developing balance and core strength. I see her interacting in a loving way with her horse and really feeling proud of herself.”

Riding is only part of the experience at NWTRC; participants take part in grooming and preparing their horses for riding, getting the chance to watch and join in the entire process.
NWTRC is located at 1884 Kelly Road on five acres owned by Julia and Mike Bozzo. The non-profit organization was founded in 1993 when Julia Bozzo recognized a need for recreational activities among people with disabilities.

She has always loved horses.

“When I was a kid, I had a paper route to raise money to buy horses,” she said. “I’ve been riding and working with horses and riders for over 40 years.”

Julia Bozzo, NWTRC’s founder and executive director, has a bachelor’s degree in agriculture and horse production from Wilmington College, and she completed her graduate work in animal science at New Mexico State University. She is also a Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship international certified instructor and a certified equine appraiser. Her accomplishments include the 2021 Whatcom Women in Business Legacy Award, the 2019 PATH International Region 9 Certified Professional of the Year, the 2012 Whatcom Dispute Resolution Center Peace Builder Award, and the 2002 PATH International Region 9 Volunteer of the Year.

NWTRC has two full-time employees: Julia Bozzo and Hilary Groh. NWTRC also provides 100 volunteer opportunities annually. Volunteers help with riding lessons, horse care and special events, and they serve on the board of directors.

Of course, without horses, NWTRC wouldn’t exist. That’s why Bozzo and her team take great care in the well-being of their steeds. The horses are fed, exercised and groomed daily, and they seem to really enjoy their jobs.

“We don’t overuse them,” Bozzo says. “They can walk, trot, do a little jumping, but our horses don’t go out more than twice a day.”
There are six horses at the riding school.

Kleng is a 13.3-hand Norwegian Fjord with a “friendly, calm personality, a strong, steady walk, and a ‘rocking horse’ canter.” He has won several awards, including the 2009 International Therapeutic Horse of the Year award. Kleng was inducted into the Horse Stars Hall of Fame – Humanitarian Equine in 2013.

Leonardo is a 14.1-hand registered AQHA gelding who came to NWTRC in 2016. He is a favorite for his buckskin coat and calm, smart character traits.

Henry T. Fjord, 14.3 hands, is a registered Norwegian Fjord gelding. He likes being “the center of attention” and knows what his riders need. Henry won the Region 9 horse of the year award in 2020.

Vincent, 15.2 hands, is owned by Julia herself and is a Trakehner/quarter horse gelding. He’s a social guy and “never stops searching for treats.”

Jouri, a 14-hand Haflinger, is the only mare in the program. She is a “quick study” and loves being part of the action.

Finally, Bruce, a 15-hand Grulla, is a quarter horse gelding in training to work at the riding center. He has a delightful temperament and the center looks forward to many years with him, Bozzo said.

When I visited the riding center, Bozzo’s enthusiasm for the animals, the participants and their families was evident. She has done an incredible amount of work on the property, as has her husband, Mike, who does all the maintenance and construction. Julia showed me a new, expertly crafted building Mike Bozzo built called the “Stable Classroom,” where education and skills training take place. When we walked in and I remarked on how warm it was inside, she pointed out the window to a tarp-covered container measuring about 8 feet by 8 feet by 4 feet.

“That’s all manure, and it heats this building,” Bozzo said. “The floor is 68 degrees, and the room is 65.”

The heat from this “passive compost system” comes from the composting manure, which heats water feeding to pipes under the concrete floor.

I follow Julia to a large pile of horse manure under the roof of an outbuilding. There is no smell.

“We clean the stalls every day and collect the manure in the building, where it’s composted and used for fertilizer and heat for the building,” she said.

This nonprofit organization is doing great things, environmentally and for the human body and mind.

Said one parent, “The NWTRC has instilled such confidence in my daughter, not just as an equestrian but also as a young woman who has to do most things differently than her peers. You can see in her smile as she rides that she feels strong and empowered.”
Julia tells me about a rider who’s been with them for 15 years. He has autism and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.

“He was extremely distracted and difficult to communicate with,” she says. “He needed a leader and side walkers to help him focus and stay on the horse. He now is able to bring his horse in from the paddock and groom and tack the horse up. He can walk, trot and canter. He also has been a volunteer here during riding lessons.”

NWTRC is the only adaptive year-round recreation program in Whatcom County that serves people of all ages with physical, emotional, behavioral, sensory and cognitive disabilities.
“We are driven by our mission of ‘Giving a Leg Up’ to people of all abilities,” Julia says. “In the horse world, a ‘leg up’ means to give someone a boost onto their horse. At the riding center, the boost carries them not just onto their horse’s back, but also into their lives.”
NWTRC provides lessons and adapts them as needed. Equine-assisted activities are an important recreational, therapeutic and holistic option for many people with disabilities. The center’s services go beyond horseback riding and include ground activities, grooming and stable management.

“Each session is designed for the individual’s abilities, therapeutic needs and goals, with the objective of optimizing health, independence and well-being,” Julia says.

Participants range in age from 4 to 70. Many have secondary diagnoses in multiple categories, for example, Down syndrome, autism spectrum disorder, traumatic brain injury, cerebral palsy, post-traumatic stress disorder and ADHD. Horse experience is not necessary, though the center cannot accommodate persons with rods in their backs or those prone to seizures.

To help give NWTRC a “leg up,” Bozzo is always looking for volunteers for the center’s lesson program. She also encourages attending and/or sponsoring events, such as the Denim to Diamonds dinner and auction July 23 and the annual golf tournament Aug. 15.
“Our staff and board are very excited to diversify programming and to offer more continuing education for the center, the industry and our community,” she says. “We are all looking forward to creating a fun and inclusive learning area that will last for decades to come.” ■