April 2014 Issue - page 8

Page 8
April 2014
A Victory Gallop for a Beloved Institution
by Suzanne Bush
Thorncroft Equestrian Cen-
ter, the Malvern, PA home of one
of the country’s first therapeutic
equestrian programs, is easy
to love and hard to leave. “My
mother suggested I come out and
help with some of the kids, be-
cause I was a rider,” Sallie Dixon
explains. She started volunteer-
ing, and working part-time at the
farm and eventually decided to
try teaching. “I was able to teach
a couple of lessons and eventu-
ally we decided I should do more
than volunteer and teach, and so
we got engaged.” That was in
1991, when Sallie met Saunders.
They married in 1992.
Saunders Dixon looks back at
the 45-year history of Thorncroft
Equestrian Center, and marvels at
how it has grown and changed. He
can’t explain how this lovely 70-
acre parcel of gentle hills, pastures
and meadows has survived through
the often-tumultuous economy that
buried other equestrian operations.
“It just happened. It just evolved,”
he says. “Things showed up. That’s
how it happened. A lady—her
name was Marge Harry—showed
up and wanted to ride, so she was
the first handicapped rider.” Harry
was blind, but she was interested in
horses, and that was reason enough
for Dixon to try to make it work
It was not so much an experi-
ment as it was the fulfillment of
a Quaker ideal. “There’s a phrase
‘as way opens,’ and that’s what
happened,” Saunders explains.
The phrase is an important lesson
in the Quaker tradition, urging
patience and prayer in order to
find a path forward.
As it turned out, Thorncroft
became both a home and a way
forward for thousands of riders,
instructors, volunteers and their
families throughout those 45
years. “We’ve been so fortunate
in having so many people come
and become a part of the place,”
he says. “The one man whose
daughter came here to ride and he
spent a lot of time bringing her
here and then he started riding.
He was a very successful busi-
nessman and he started to help
us.” Sallie picks up the story of
George Rubin, who now chairs
the Center’s Board of Directors.
“He and his family moved here
to be closer to the farm. They live
10 minutes down the road. His
daughter Kelly has been with us
30 years now.” Saunders credits
Rubin with helping the non-profit
achieve financial stability. “It’s an
honored relationship. It’s been a
joy to have him here,” Sallie says.
Saunders estimates that
thousands of students have been
part of Thorncroft’s programs over
the years. “We have 300 students
every week,” Sallie says. “We just
had a man come through today.
His daughters used to ride with
us when they were nine and ten.”
He had come in to buy tickets to
the Victory Gallop—Thorncroft’s
annual April fund-raiser at which
Temple Grandin is the guest
speaker. “He said ‘don’t forget my
grandchildren are three and five
years old and they’ll be out to ride
next year.’” It’s an emotional con-
nection that clearly touches her.
“It’s really a gift that his children
had such a great experience; they
want to pass it on to their children.
When you start seeing grandchil-
dren and great-grandchildren of
the riders and the volunteers who
have been here, it is special.” Spe-
cial and also “a little creaky.”
Therapeutic Riding an
Ancient Art
While the concept of
therapeutic riding was formally
introduced in the United States in
the late 1960s, it is not a modern
idea. Throughout history, horses
have been partners in healing
humans. Even the ancient father
of physicians, Hippocrates, noted
the therapeutic benefits of riding
horses. That was in 460 BC. After
the First World War, therapists
in Europe began using horses in
therapy to help wounded soldiers.
It was not long before the concept
was adopted for non-war-related
injuries and diseases.
Physical therapists found
that the movement of a horse’s
pelvis when walking has a similar
rhythm and movement to humans
at the walk. Thus, they reasoned,
the sensory input to an injured or
disabled rider on a horse would
be extremely beneficial in helping
the rider achieve better balance.
But something else became
apparent to physicians and thera-
pists. Horses are curious, intuitive
and capable of—what’s the best
word here?—
other creatures. Their interest in
being with people and their great
reserves of kindness are profoundly
effective salves to wounded spirits.
All that innocent power and ancient
wisdom add up to good medicine
for bodies and spirits.
Angels on the Job
Sallie refers to the farm’s
lesson horses as angels. “The gift
is we have horses that come to us,
that have prior training.” Many of
the horses are donated to Thorn-
croft, and they’ve got lots of expe-
rience under their girths. “We call
this their last job or their second-
to-last job. They bring to the farm
the skills they’ve been taught off
the farm. We call them angels, and
they have to have a huge scope to
be here. They work with the riders
Sallie Dixon stops to talk to one of Thorncroft’s “angels.” The
Thorncroft Victory Gallop will be held April 5 at the Hyatt at the Bel-
levue in Philadelphia. For ticket information visit thorncroft.org.
(Continued on page 27)
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