A Legacy of Healing

A therapeutic riding program on a historic ranch uses horses to empower students with disabilities.
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Ashley Kissing Freya

Tucked away among the rolling hills of Northern California is Ridgewood Ranch, home of the legendary racehorse Seabiscuit. His incredible comeback from what should have been a career-ending injury inspired a nation and his legacy of healing lives on at Ridgewood Ranch through the Seabiscuit Therapeutic Riding Center (STRC), where students of all ages and abilities have the chance to connect with horses in life-changing ways. 

“Our goal is to teach the skill of horsemanship to help with daily life,” says STRC Director Erin Holzhauer. 

A peaceful arena bordered by massive walnut trees is where the magic happens. It’s where Holzhauer and the program’s volunteers create opportunities for students to have experiences that are uniquely powerful. It’s where a young man with autism chooses to make eye contact with a horse and chooses to engage by sticking the lead rope in the (very patient) horse’s nose and ears. It’s where a paraplegic has the chance to once again experience the feeling of walking by riding. It’s where a young woman with selective mutism whispers to a horse. For someone without disabilities, these simple actions are taken for granted. For the students and their loved ones, they’re nothing short of miracles.

The program was created by an unlikely team—one led by an ambitious 11-year-old. In 1993, Erin Holzhauer decided she wanted to start a therapeutic riding program in her hometown of Willits. With the help of her friends, their parents, and their 4-H club, that dream became a reality; the 4-Hers and their parents provided riding lessons to disabled youth for a few hours on weekends. 

Twenty-four years later, the center has blossomed into a full-time program with 35 students, three horses, and 22 volunteers. After spending a few years in San Diego, Holzhauer, now 35, has returned as a Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International-certified instructor. Although she is quick to give credit to the program’s team, much of STRC’s success over the past decade is the result of Holzhauer’s skills and passion for changing people’s lives through horse-human connections. 

“We have an exceptional, exceptional instructor,” says STRC co-founder Ellen Bartholomew. 

Holzhauer and the program’s volunteers use every aspect of horsemanship to help students achieve goals such as improving muscle tone, setting boundaries, or simply connecting with another living being. Although the team strives to get every student riding, ground work is also used to teach students new skills and self-confidence. 

“They can go into an arena with a horse and just by lifting their body energy up, that horse can move away from them. And just by dropping their energy, the horse will come to them. Just by raising their arms they can define their space and have that horse respect their space. Or that horse will partner with them and just walk with them. How wonderful and empowering that is. It’s incredible,” says Holzhauer. 

The small communities around Ridgewood Ranch have continued to support the program through fundraisers that enable STRC to charge about half of the average cost for lessons and provide scholarships for more than half of the students. 

“We try to make it really accessible. That’s really important; so we don’t refuse anybody,” explains Holzhauer.

With Holzhauer at the helm, the future looks bright for the program. They will be adding a fourth horse to the team soon and hope to incorporate driving into their program as well. While Ridgewood Ranch may be famous for being the home of Seabiscuit, the ranch’s real treasure is the smiles of those lifted above their circumstances by the horses and dedicated team of the Seabiscuit Therapeutic Riding Center. 

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