Kids, veterans connect through horses

Confidence and joy. Alana Saunders, 8, lets go.

Confidence and joy. Alana Saunders, 8, lets go.

Breathe deeply and look straight ahead. Good advice on any occasion, but on this one, it makes the difference between stopping and going.

Kelsey Saunders, 6, learned this lesson on the back of Frankie, Sierra Therapeutic Equestrian Program’s resident donkey, as she took him for a ride around the corral. When she looked down, he stopped. When she sat up straight, took a deep breath and looked forward, he walked on.

“Walk on” is one of the first commands the children have learned in their second week at STEP. Thanks to fundraising efforts, STEP was able to provide scholarships for eight members of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Western Nevada to attend 4-week sessions on the McGruder Ranch in Washoe Valley.

“This is the oldest program of its kind in northern Nevada,” Terry McGruder said, “We started this program 18 years ago and funded it out of our own pockets until we retired. Now we’re a 501(c)3 non-profit organization and are able to begin fundraising to help cover our expenses.”

Kelsey Saunders and her sister Alana, 8, joined Yosvany Yeager, 9, and Aleecia Majano, 11, from the Boys & Girls Clubs, in week two of their 4-week session, applying the lessons learned last week — horse anatomy, grooming, safety, and of course, deep breathing, before mounting up and riding around the arena.

“I like riding best,” Saunders said, after admitting she’s familiar with the tools and combs because her grandpa Bob has horses.

Each child is surrounded by four volunteers who help make the child feel safe and comfortable, especially on Moses, the enormous Clydesdale brought in to ride with a group of veterans who also received scholarships to participate in STEP that day.

Boys & Girls Clubs members are selected based on need, said Matt Sampson, the Clubs’ program director.

“Whether they are struggling with disabilities or bullying behavior, they benefit greatly from the therapeutic aspect of the program,” he said. “They really make a connection with the horses.”

The emotional connection to the animals teaches life skills like patience, courage, teamwork and self-confidence, as well as how to care for and nurture another.

“Some of our kids deal with more trauma in their short lives than most adults will in a lifetime,” Sampson said. “These experiences with STEP give them skills, memories and strength they can draw on when life gets hard.”

STEP is the lifelong dream of Konnie McGruder, Terry’s wife and founder of the program.

“We met 53 years ago as college freshmen at Gonzaga University,” Terry McGruder said. “She told me then she wanted to start a therapeutic riding program. They were rare back then, and she kept talking about it.”

Estimating it costs around $10,000 a year to cover insurance, hay, equipment and veterinarian bills, McGruder said they are hoping to raise enough money to build an indoor arena with heating and air conditioning so they can run programs all year long. STEP has another fundraiser coming up from 7 to 10 p.m. on Aug. 26 at the Carson City Senior Center. For more information, visit or call (775) 530-7073.

“Why do we do it?” he said. “Because it needs to be done.”


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