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 Bellevue in Philadelphia. For ticket information visit thorncroft.org.
Thorncroft Equestrian Center, 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, because I was a rider,” Sallie Dixon explains. She started volunteering, and working part-time at the farm and eventually decided to try teaching. “I was able to teach a couple of lessons and eventually 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 out.
It was not so much an experiment 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 businessman 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 10.” 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 connection 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 grandchildren and great grandchildren of the riders and the volunteers who have been here, it is special.” Special 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 therapists. Horses are curious, intuitive and capable of—what’s the best word here?—kindness toward 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 Thorncroft, and they’ve got lots of experience 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 with disabilities and then teach the able-bodied riders how to ride.”
They make no distinction between riders who are disabled and those who are not, Sallie explains. “Able bodied or not, we all have different ways of learning. The challenge for our instructors is to find out how individuals learn.” She says that Thorncroft’s instructors spend a lot of time checking in with riders and their parents and care-givers, to make sure everyone is getting the support they need.
“Maybe a little tiny child can’t get a saddle up on a horse and that would be the same as someone in a wheelchair coming into the barn. So we offer the support that each of our riders needs to achieve their goals. Everybody is treated the same. They all come in with the same expectations.”
And once again, tenure is a key feature in the Thorncroft story. “We’re blessed with an amazing staff,” Sallie says. “It’s funny, we say people come here for two weeks and they stay for life. I came here for two weeks and 22 years later here I am. We have a great staff that supports the farm. Our farm manager is phenomenal, and she’s been here two years all of a sudden.”
“That’s Why We Built the Arena”
There are two indoor arenas at Thorncroft, the newest one built with the help of Betty Moran, the owner of Brushwood Stables. “Mrs. Moran helped us put up the second arena in honor of her son Jimmy,” Sallie explains. “And that’s been a godsend for our mental health program and especially for our riders with Autism. They really enjoy a quiet place, and that arena is like going to church. You walk in and it’s quiet. It’s sealed, the windows are bright.” She says that there are a number of veterans who ride at Thorncroft, and they have gravitated to the new arena, for the peace they find there.
She described one particular incident to illustrate the profound impact the new arena can have. One particular student, she said, had been taking lessons in the larger arena, and had recently started riding in the newer one. “The child is autistic, and he’s riding in the north arena with his instructor. The father said that after three rides he had a conversation at the dinner table for the first time in his life. I said my golly that’s why we built the arena. For responses like that, that’s why we built it.”
“It’s amazing how it comes together with a lot of good help,” Saunders says. But none of this help, none of the support, none of the extraordinary largess would have come to Thorncroft without the vision of Saunders Dixon and his generous spirit when Marge Harry arrived and asked about learning to ride more than 40 years ago. “It’s a powerful, lovely, generous group that holds it all together. What can I say? They’re committed to the program to the way of being,” Sallie explains. “It’s Quaker foundations, a little different, goal oriented.”
An Extraordinary Show
Thorncroft runs the handicapped riders division of the Devon Horse Show at the farm. It is hosted by Thorncroft, and sponsored by Brushwood Stables, along with other donors. Thorncroft also runs the championship class at Devon. Thorncroft’s Drill Team, the Mainstreamers, perform at Devon and at other locations in the region. “There’s nothing like watching those kids ride their horses into the Dixon Oval, which by the way is no relationship to us,” Sallie says. “But to watch the kids and their families when those riders go into the arena, it’s just breathtaking! There’s no other show in the country like it and we’re blessed, thanks to Hope Montgomery Scott and Betty Moran and other folks, to be able to support that here.”
Thorncroft has been hosting this division since it was introduced to the Devon Horse Show in 1980, when just 11 riders participated. The division has grown to nearly 200 riders from throughout the region. It’s a testament to the power of the relationship between humans and horses.
The power of the horse/human connection is a quantity hard to measure. But it drives organizations and people to achieve great things. And funny things. The inevitable mishaps, the flashes of brilliance, the dogs that have decided that they’ve had enough of dozing on the dog beds in the hallways. Sallie Dixon asks the Thorncroft staff, “Why did you get up today? There’s got to be something that makes you laugh and something that humbles you.” Why indeed?