The Magic of Equine Therapy at Swiftsure Ranch

Words by Courtney Hamilton 

Magic: not a term to be used lightly. But for those involved with Swiftsure Ranch, an equine therapy center located just outside of Bellevue, Idaho, that is what seems to happen on their rolling grounds every day. “I’ve been around horses my whole life,” says Executive Director Cheryl Bennett, “and some of the interactions between our riders and our horses truly blow me away.”

Ask anyone who has been involved with the Swiftsure about the organization and, within minutes, you’re going to get a welcome earful about life-changing stories. Word of warning: cue the Kleenex. You might cry.

I recently attended a celebration thanking donors and supporters who have long supported the programming at the ranch and who have helped the organization make the final payment on the ranch. The property is the heart of the organization. The soul is the community—the horses, employees, volunteers, and donors who make it all possible.

Redefining the Possible

Swiftsure’s reason for being is to help people “fly without wings.” And they do it through special horses in a special place. People who have never walked of their own accord get to feel the freedom of a stroll through the woods on horseback. People who have never been able to socially connect with others befriend horses and find confidence in their presence. People who are slowly losing function through degenerating diseases build strength working with the horses. Long story short, the horses and trainers at Swiftsure are all about being enablers in the very best sense of the word. And they make the magic happen.

And another piece of the magic: the weekly rides are 100% free for riders for life.  

“The thing that people often don’t think about with our services,” Bennett says, “is that at any time they could be the ones benefitting from them.” Many of the facility’s riders came to them following accidents or adult diagnoses that left them mentally or physically disabled. The opportunity to step outside the confines of that disability for one hour per week with no financial burden has changed the lives of entire families, and some riders have been participating in the programs for 20-plus years.

In the 25 years since Swiftsure was founded, equine therapy has grown and improved greatly. Therapists who work and volunteer with Swiftsure are specifically trained to work in the context of the horses because things change so quickly when the patients are on the horses— both emotionally and physically. In many cases “normal” therapy practices just don’t apply. There are disabilities and therapies now that didn’t even exist in the ‘90s, and while this has made Swiftsure’s programs much more effective, it’s also expanded their clientele, creating a waitlist that is hopefully soon to disappear thanks to their latest fundraising successes.

This past January, the ranch succeeded in reaching the $1.5 million fundraising goal for Phase Two of their growth plan AND paying off the mortgage on the 191-acre ranch that they purchased in 2012. Not a bad month for all involved, and certainly two accomplishments worth popping a little bubbly. How did they do it? Quietly, believe it or not. All donations toward the Phase Two capital campaign were private donations through individuals or foundations over the past two years—a true testament to the belief that the community holds in Swiftsure Ranch. “I truly believe in the program,” says retired board member, donor, and long-time volunteer Esther Ochsman. “All you have to do is visit the ranch for one day to see the amazing effect that it has on the riders and their families – it’s life-changing for them.”

In April, construction will begin on the addition of walls to close in the ranch’s largest outdoor arena as well as facilities to support the newly indoor space such as tack rooms and ADA bathrooms, expanding their winter rider capacity and hopefully accomplishing Bennett’s dream of accepting everyone on the waitlist for their weekly rides. The ranch currently can support about 106 winter riders as opposed to 115 summer riders per week with their facilities, and the completion of the arena will expand that to about 120 year-round, which Bennett believes to be an adequate capacity for the size of community that they serve.