Equine Therapy

These very special American Quarter Horses brighten the lives of hundreds every day.

America’s Horse

When Mr Magnolia Zip – “Ricky” to his friends – was in the western pleasure show pen, his friends and competitors called him “Gangster Rick” because of his intensely focused attitude – and because few of those competitors managed to stand up to his assaults. The Zippo Pine Bar gelding accumulated a rap sheet of championships and top-10s at the AQHA World and Youth World championship shows and All American Quarter Horse Congress that few could rival, most recently with his owner, Dennis Pathroff.

But in 2008, Dennis gave his 18-year-old champion gelding over to a new calling as a therapeutic riding horse at the Victory Junction Gang Camp in Randleman, North Carolina. There, Ricky’s confidence has served him well in his newest and possibly most important job – bringing joy to sick or disabled children and their families.

Victory Junction was started by the family of one of Ricky’s former show partners, Montgomery Lee Petty – the daughter of famed NASCAR driver Kyle Petty and the granddaughter of “The King” Richard Petty. Victory Junction is a year-round camp that serves children, ages 6 to 16, with a variety of health issues. Campers and their families attend free of charge, as their fees are paid through donations to the camp. During the summer, the camp offers weeklong, disease-specific sessions with up to 128 kids per session. During the fall, winter and spring, family weekends are offered, with 32 families per weekend.

A poorly tied rope halter can put your horse in danger, so it’s worth your time to learn how to properly use it and keep your horse safe -- learn how in AQHA’s FREE How to Tie a Rope Halter report.

The idea for the camp formed in 1999 when Adam Petty – son of Kyle and Pattie and brother to Montgomery Lee – participated in a charity ride for a similar camp. When Adam was killed in 2000, his parents were inspired to fulfill his dream and began working with actor Paul Newman and his Hole in the Wall camps. Pattie is the chairwoman of the board of directors for Victory Junction.

Since opening the doors June 20, 2004, the camp has hosted more than 10,000 campers from 47 states and three countries. In May 2009, ground was broken for a second location in Kansas City, Kansas. Spread over 84 acres of wooded forest, the original Victory Junction’s NASCAR theme is everywhere – from photos of Adam, his father and grandfather scattered in the welcome center to the car hood sounding boards and spark plug wall decor in the theater. Camp includes a huge variety of activities for kids no matter their level of disability, including a water park, indoor softball field, a seven-acre lake with fishing access via boat and indoor dock and a NASCAR race shop – and a fully staffed hospital just in case it’s necessary.

While the camp has about 75 fulltime employees, it is brought to life by volunteers. They range from corporate sponsors who donate buildings, to individuals across the country who send unique, hand-crafted quilts or knit afghans and teddy bears that are placed on each camper’s bunk bed to use and take home. Doctors and other professionals donate their time and expertise to help campers, and all the horses at the camp are donated.

The equine center resembles a circus tent from the outside, and is a barn-in-the-round with stalls facing into a center area, allowing employees to see every animal and every child at all times. The kids are free to interact with horses, ponies and various farm animals. Small groups are taken for rides in an attached temperature-controlled riding arena with rollup doors (for an outdoor riding experience if weather and health conditions allow). The camp’s 40 horses rotate, with 10 staying at the camp and the rest allowed vacation time at the Pettys’ nearby ranch, where the four-legged volunteers unwind in the pasture. The horses may be used for traditional hippotherapy, or they might just provide a sympathetic ear for their camper friends.

Roll It!

Meet Colonel Earl Lilley, a World War II bomber pilot who served as an ambassador for the American Quarter Horse. His dedication earned him the 2008 Merle Wood Humanitarian Award.

“We had one little boy with a brain tumor so large it couldn’t be removed,” Pattie says. “He ran straight up to (therapy horse Black Diamond Chip), who just took his head and neck and wrapped it around this little boy and held him – and this little boy is just holding him and holding him.

“That little boy passed about three weeks after camp,” she says. “I was blessed enough to see that interaction, and it was as if ‘Chip’ knew. Chip knew what was going on, and he knew that little boy was not long for this world. You could see it in the love that that horse showed that child. At his funeral, there was nothing but giant pictures of him being hugged by Chip, and him hugging him back. Those are things that that family will cherish – because I lost a child, and pictures to me are something that I will cherish.”

The former “gangster” Rick now dresses up on holidays for photos and to entertain his pint-size guests (the summer outfit involved a Speedo and a water raft). A Wheaties box with a photo of him and Montgomery Lee winning a world championship – the only box to ever feature a horse – hangs next to his stall, and the children enjoy the chance to take the world champion for a spin.

“He loves the kids,” Pattie says. “Those eyes seem very astute to what those children need. I don’t think you could’ve asked for a horse who did his job so well to come here and give back so much. All our horses do – there’s not one down in that barn that doesn’t give back to the children.”

Should I Donate My Horse?

Therapeutic riding horses serve a vital function for those in need, providing mental and physical stimulation and their own special magic. However, it takes a special horse to really make it in this demanding job, and horses in these programs are almost always donated by their owners. Here are a few tips to decide if your horse might be a candidate for this rewarding life.

    • Is he friendly? A therapeutic riding horse has to like being around people, because the folks he serves need interaction.
    • Is he “bombproof?” He must stay calm in a variety of potentially frightening situations. He must be able to tolerate equipment such as wheelchairs, lifts and ramps; people with erratic behavior such as sudden movements and loud noises; and a great deal of activity on their backs as teachers conduct hippotherapy sessions.
    • Is he sound? Most therapeutic riding centers are non-profits on shoestring budges. Their horses have to be able to stand up to the walk-trot work demanded of them, and expensive shoeing or medications can be an unnecessary burden. It’s not a retirement home, either. Horses in the prime of their life – ages 10-20 – are preferred.
    • Is he sturdy? Participants are of all sizes, so centers can use horses and ponies of all size. However, an average-size horse (15-17 hands) that is able to carry up to 200 pounds is the most versatile.

The rope halter is a valuable tool, but it needs to be used correctly. Learn how to use a rope halter correctly in AQHA’s FREE How to Tie a Rope Halter report.

The American Quarter Horse Foundation knows that the unique emotional bond between an American Quarter Horse and a human can overcome physical, psychological and emotional barriers, bringing newfound joy to individuals with special needs.

That’s why the Foundation offers a special program to support therapeutic riding – America’s Horse Cares. The goal of America’s Horse Cares is to create an ongoing funding base to support special-needs individuals and organizations that benefit from equine experiences.