The horses are obviously loved and the horses just as obviously love back at Bellingham’s NorthWest Therapeutic Riding Center.
That much is apparent during a visit to the Kelly Road facility founded and directed by Julia Bozzo with assistance from husband Mike, program director Hilary Groh and numerous volunteers.
“I was born loving horses,” Bozzo says with a laugh.
Groh, 29, is a Western Washington University graduate who serves as program director and is a certified therapeutic recreation specialist. She is an advanced instructor for PATH International, the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship.
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“We are an accredited PATH Premier Center, one of about 270 in the world,” Groh says.
“I like to say Mike is our secret weapon,” Bozzo says of her husband, who does much of the maintenance and other tasks.
The center is celebrating its 25th anniversary. The Bozzos founded it only two years after coming to Bellingham in 1991.
Bozzo notes the center, a 501(c)3 nonprofit, operates on direct fund-raising, events, private and corporate donations, corporate matching fund programs and minimal tuition from riders. It does not receive government grants or insurance payments.
Groh said about one-third of those who take lessons at the center are 4-12 years old.
“About 40 percent of them are on the (autism) spectrum, and about 60 percent have developmental delays,” she says.
All of these children receive medical approval to participate.
“What we feature is teaching horsemanship and riding adapted as needed for each individual,” Bozzo says.
She said other children participate as well.
Six horses are stabled at the facility.
They include two Norwegian fjords, one Dales pony (a rare English breed) and three quarter horses. They are experienced and range in age from 6 to 26.
“We have highly trained horses and highly trained volunteers,” Groh says.
“All our horses walk, trot and cantor, and jump,” Bozzo says, noting how lessons are adapted to match the rider’s skill and potential. “We keep the horses healthy, sound and happy.”
“Just being around and working with an animal weighing 1,000 pounds develops confidence,” Groh says. “It makes you go outside of yourself. In order to have a relationship with a horse, you have to exhibit a certain degree of confidence. It’s a reciprocal confidence.”
She also emphasized the students’ responsibility to the horses.
“The participant learn grooming, tack and horse handling,” she says.
A holistic approach
“What we do here is really holistic,” Groh says. “It’s emotional and physical. It’s all cognitive learning. Riding is inherently therapeutic. We look at the whole picture.
“There are five learning outcomes: To develop horsemanship skills; to improve communication skills (horsemanship is a catalyst); to increase independence; to improve balance, coordination and muscle tone; and to improve focus and attention.”
Bozzo said the lessons are age-appropriate in nature.
“Riding and horsemanship opens up new worlds for people, regardless of whether they have a disability or not,” she says.
Both women also believe strongly in yet another benefit:
“It’s nature, not technology,” Groh says.
NorthWest Therapeutic Riding Center, located at 1884 Kelly Road in Bellingham, can be reached at 360-966-2124 or Julia@nwtrc.org. The website is nwtrc.org.