PORT TOWNSEND — Meet the big, nonjudgmental therapists: Fury, Nevada, Dixie, Athena and Tikki. They have a natural ability to soothe and uplift, no words necessary.
These five horses are heading into another season as the Salish Spirit team. They need a few more two-legged partners.
A nonprofit organization formed six years ago, Salish Spirit offers therapeutic riding for children and adults with special needs, from autism to Down’s syndrome to post-traumatic stress.
Mary Craft, a certified Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship, or PATH instructor, founded Salish Spirit after moving to Port Townsend from Houston.
“Here I was,” she said, “retired, in a place where I don’t know a soul. What am I gonna do?”
She’s done a lot of riding, teaching and guiding, as Salish Spirit’s volunteer executive director. And a small herd of local horsewomen have joined Craft: Karen Reedy, also PATH-certified, Donna Greenert, Donna Miller, Sarah Doyle and Candace Raab have helped her build a program that serves people from communities across and beyond the North Olympic Peninsula.
From summer to summer, they welcome riders from Port Angeles, Seattle and around Jefferson County, including kids from Jumping Mouse Children’s Center, the mental health therapy center in Port Townsend.
The women of Salish Spirit bring their own horses. With these docile creatures, they teach kids and grownups, including many previously unable to mount a horse or speak any commands, how to enjoy riding.
And enjoy it they do.
“You see the kids changing,” said Raab, a volunteer from the beginning.
“When you first see them, some are pretty closed. Then they get on these horses, and they can tell this big animal what to do.
“They can be so funny — and so much fun,” she said.
Salish Spirit needs more volunteers this summer, so a training is set for 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. this coming Tuesday at the Jefferson County Fairgrounds, 4907 Landes St.
You don’t have to be a horsewoman or -man, Craft emphasized.
“We’ll train you,” in working with the riders, the horses and the rest of the volunteer team. The key requirement here, Craft added, is reliability: showing up for the hourlong classes, held Tuesdays starting June 26 and continuing through Aug. 28.
For details about the volunteer training, visit http://www.salishspirit.org/, click on the menu bars on the right side of the page and select “volunteer.”
Salish Spirit has 15 riders this season, which is more than ever, along with a group of devoted volunteers, Craft said.
Both the volunteers and the riders bond with the horses; these animals, including her own Fury, a retired dressage horse, are sweet and mellow.
People are needed to serve as “side walkers,” walking alongside horse and rider, and to help with helmets, mounting and dismounting. And it’s not all work; there are games to play on horseback too. Outside the ring, volunteers are needed to help with outreach, publicity, fundraising and grant-writing.
So far Salish Spirit has just one major annual fundraiser: the Cowboy Ball held in early spring at the fairgrounds, which this year featured supper from Mo-Chilli BBQ and dancing to the band Three Chords and the Truth.
Craft and her crew love the program as it is now — and they dream of expanding it, of offering therapeutic riding to more people year through all four seasons.
Craft recently attended a conference for nonprofit organizations, and came away inspired.
“What if we could own some horses, have our own place, even some paid staff?” she wondered.
For her, the dedication and focus of the volunteers has resulted in a strong program, a program whose future is bright. There are many more people in the region who can benefit from equine therapy, she believes, be they children, adults, veterans or families.
Salish Spirit has grown up on donations and volunteer labor, in the riding ring and on its website construction. Raab, a professional illustrator, created the logo and took the photographs for the website.
Raab, Craft and their fellow volunteers have witnessed breakthroughs big and small. They’ve heard a boy, previously nonverbal, start humming as he rode.
They’ve seen the gentle motion of the horse release another boy’s rigid muscles, so he could relish the rhythm of riding. They’ve seen a woman go from never speaking to saying her first words to her horse.
Seeing a rider up there, smiling, “it’s kind of addictive in a way,” Raab said. The kids and the adults, given time, blossom.
As for the horses, Raab has watched them lower their heads so the kids can touch their noses, even hug them.
“They’re very sensitive,” she said.
“By nature, they are just kind.”
Jim Ciaciuch of Port Angeles has been bringing his daughter Molly to Salish Spirit for a few summers now.
“She has, I think, really thrived with the program. I really wish it was a year-round program instead of the couple months that it is,” he says in a testimonial on the website. “It’s given her a lot more self-confidence,” as she’s learned to control a 1,000-pound animal.
Other parents have told Craft and Raab that their children can hardly wait to get out the door for the trip to the fairgrounds on riding day.
Back in 2012, there were skeptics, Craft recalled. They figured because no one gets paid — any donations to Salish Spirit go toward equipment and insurance — the volunteers would burn out.
“People told us this would never work,” Craft said.
“It has worked.”
Diane Urbani de la Paz, a former features editor for the Peninsula Daily News, is a freelance writer living in Port Townsend.