Wednesday, June 13, 2012

New digs, new possibilities

Swiftsure Ranch Therapeutic Equestrian Center opens

Express Staff Writer

Danny Albright, left, and Nate Scales, working on a shelter to accommodate mounting blocks as well as an electric lift needed to transfer some riders from a wheel chair to the horse. Courtesy photo by Cheryl Bennett

People who gravitate to this type of landscape tend to revel in the hidden gems that can be found during a drive down a winding gravel road.

After a visitor heads south of Bellevue and turns west off state Highway 75 under the overshot that is branded Swiftsure Ranch, following the meandering road down into a bramble of trees feels like the middle of nowhere in less than a quarter of a mile.

But beyond the trees is a bustling scene of growth and possibility as construction crews and dogs breathe new life into the barns and arenas that after this weekend will be the new home of the therapeutic riding program formerly known as Sagebrush Equine Training Center for the Handicapped. The celebrated program that serves athletes and recreation seekers who require adaptive equipment for their endeavors will debut with an open house Saturday from 4-6 p.m. The public is invited to see the new site in a celebration that includes a rechristening as Swiftsure Ranch Therapeutic Equestrian Center.

"We're going to focus this summer on providing the program people rely on and finding out how everything works," Executive Director Cheryl Bennett said during a recent tour. "We don't want anything to be too permanent until we operate a full season."

Research has shown that horses have a gait close to the human walk and can provide a stimulating physical therapy as well as reopen pathways in the brain with exercises led by instructors.

During its operation, SETCH has hosted kids from Camp Rainbow Gold summer camp for children with cancer, soldiers in recovery after wartime service as part of Sun Valley Adaptive Sports' Higher Ground program and students from the Idaho School for the Deaf and Blind. Bennett said Swiftsure will continue those partnerships.

But first, its instructors and volunteers will need to finish moving in and get to know the routine.

< On this day, there is a little horsey activity in the paddocks—program director Lindsey Jameson is working a horse here. In another barn, longtime volunteer Hugh Blue is working with teacher Lisa Scales saddling up. There are lots of practices going on all around and lots of people too, working to install the appropriate handicapped facilities required to convert this one-time residential horse operation into Swiftsure's new home base.

The program horses have been moved down the highway from their old Hailey home on Buttercup Road and they are being coaxed into the new environs, trying out new crossties and stalls. Most are lounging in the sunshine of the rock-free runs or out on the many rolling emerald acres that abut the Big Wood River.

Most of the regular clientele, who use these special guided sessions for pleasure or exercise therapy, have been to the new property. Familiarity is vital for many of the students, who have mental and physical conditions that make transitions challenging. But the area's serenity has made introductions flow easier, Bennett said.

"It feels like we were meant to be here and that we're going to be able to use it as it was originally meant to be, and a bit more," she said.

There's a lot more room here for all—for a time, more than anyone will fully use—but this is clearly a place for growth and long-term possibilities. There are numerous shade trees and little trails leading to small ponds where students can venture between rides, new, larger student and volunteer lounges and new bathrooms.

SETCH had been looking for a place to expand after 20 years in Hailey when the property became available last fall. The program's donors rallied to secure it for $1.9 million at auction. The property needed a face lift, which it now has in the way of fresh paint in a muted earth-tone tan, electric indoor and outdoor lifts to put handicapped riders into the saddle, a new outdoor tack room and other refurbishments to make the flow of people and horse traffic smoother. Some fencing still needs replacing.

The biggest hurdle was discovered with the heated barn, long overdue for snow removal upgrades. A new $50,000 roof and other upgrades were made. Some of these expenses can be offset once 61 acres of hay is harvested. If that's successful, the program will be able to feed all its animals and have some to sell as well.

Somewhere down the road are plans for sensory trails among the aspens, a stocked fishing pond, overnight camps and horse shows.

"It's hard not to look ahead," Bennett admitted. "But we're focused on taking it one step at a time."

Open house

Where: Swiftsure Ranch, just south of Bellevue on Highway 75, marked log entryway on west side of road.

When: Saturday, June 16, from 4-6 p.m.

What: Tour the new facility of the therapeutic riding program formerly known as Sagebrush Equine Training Center. Tacos from Calle 75, rider demonstrations, public officials officiating.

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