OCEANSIDE — A few dozen cowboys and cowgirls in training gathered at Ivey Ranch Park for volunteer orientation on Sept. 15.
Horses stretched their heads out over their stalls to greet the volunteers who are key to Ivey Ranch’s horse therapy program that serves the physically challenged.
Last year 225 volunteers helped out.
Children ages 9 and up can volunteer to be Barn Buddies. They learn to groom and feed the horses and clean equipment and stalls.
“Some actually like cleaning the stalls,” instructor Bill Shoenecker said. “The majority like grooming and hands-on interaction with the horses.”
Adult volunteers groom, lead and sandal horses and work as side walkers during therapy lessons.
Tonya Danielly, Ivey Ranch Park executive director, said there are lots of reasons why people step up and volunteer.
“They are an experienced horseperson, like to work with special needs people, have a compassion for animals, want to volunteer — there are a lot of different triggers,” Danielly said.
Volunteer Debbie George has volunteered at Ivey Ranch for three years.
“I had just retired,” George said. “I needed to volunteer and it sounded good. I had never haltered a horse before and my hand went up.”
Now George leads, grooms and walks the horses.
“At first I thought I was selfish. I get so much from it,” George said. “There is so much loving you get from them. When I started working with therapy kids I wanted to start crying. I saw them totally change. They were riding and they could hardly talk or walk.”
Prior experience with horses or therapy work is not required of volunteers. Ivey Ranch Park instructors train and support volunteers every step of the way.
Instructors introduce volunteers to the horses and explain each horse’s personality and needs. Then they demonstrate tasks and let volunteers try their hand at them.
The more experience and confidence a volunteer gains, the more tasks he or she takes on independently.
“The most challenging thing is leading the horses,” Shoenecker said. “They’re big muscled animals. If you’re uncomfortable and have never done it before it’s a hard thing for beginners. If you’re calm and relaxed the horse will be calm and relaxed.”
Volunteers sign up for a six-week work schedule. There is a two-week break between sessions and then volunteers can sign up again.
A regular routine and familiar faces are highly beneficial to the riders who participate in therapy riding.
The routine is also rewarding for volunteers and instructors.
“It’s like therapy for me too,” Shoenecker said. “The ranch itself is such a claming place everyone likes coming here.”
“Being out there on the ranch makes you feel so good,” George said. “I think maybe I’m making a difference for someone.”
The next volunteer orientation is Oct. 27. For more information, visit iveyranch.com.