NYRA Cares: Much to gain for horses and people at Therapeutic Horses of Saratoga
Aug 2, 2021
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NYRA Cares: Much to gain for horses and people at Therapeutic Horses of Saratoga

by NYRA Press Office

 Horses got an early hold on Laura LaRue.

“I’ve been obsessed with horses for as long as I remember,” said LaRue, who turned her passion into a position as Director of Equine Care at the Saratoga-based Therapeutic Horses of Saratoga [THS]. “I remember begging and begging my parents to ride – and that dream became true when I was 8 and I got to take lessons.”

LaRue rode through her childhood, competing in English show jumping. But at the University of Albany, horses took a backseat as she planned to turn a job working with at-risk youth at summer camps into a career as a psychologist or a counselor – that is until she discovered the growing field of equine therapy.

THS specializes in equine assisted therapy, which rescues and retrains retired racehorses for hands-on work with individuals in need. THS horses get a new purpose by serving as a source of support while engaging in confidence-building and improving coping abilities for people of all ages. Their assistance can cover the gamut from children dealing with anxiety to victims of domestic violence and veterans.

LaRue called it “the best of both worlds,” which combines her knowledge of and desire to work with both horses and people. Retraining the horses at the 27-acre THS farm off Lake Avenue means a new start for those in the 20-horse herd. Of those 20, 11 are therapy horses, a mix of retired thoroughbred and standardbreds.

Equine-assisted learning is about rescuing horses, and a lot more. Partnering with the Saratoga-based ECS Psychological Services, THS works with licensed mental health therapists in making up a vital part of the mental health organization’s animal therapy program, in which the horses play a vital role. 

At the heart of the ECS animal therapy program is the belief that having a dog, cat or even a horse present in counseling sessions can be comforting – and that bonding with an animal reduces stress levels while increasing positive emotions. For children who are nervous about attending therapy, the presence of a therapy animal can make the experience less stressful and more fun.

“Time and time again, we’ve seen the proof that animal therapy works,” said Dr. Erin Christopher-Sisk, the founder and clinical director of ECS.

Dogs, Cats & Horses

After launching her counseling practice in 2004, Dr. Christopher-Sisk incorporated her two dogs as therapy animals. At the time, she and her husband Jim Sisk owned a trotter named DW’s Regal; and a few years later when they started looking for a post-racing second career for their horse, they made him a therapy horse. At the founding of THS in 2015, DW’s Regal was its first horse. 

At the time, equine therapy was beginning to gain a real foothold in the aftercare community. But fortified by demonstrated success stories and several comprehensive studies that document the benefits of equine therapy for people with mental health issues, the field has gained a lot of adherents in the wellness field. Last year, the State of University of New York [SUNY] Cobleskill even added a Therapeutic Horsemanship program.

“There’s nothing better than to give a horse a loving home while helping people with mental issues,” said Dr. Christopher-Sisk. “It requires licensed therapists and people with horse-handling skills. We have those people here and we have the horses – and it’s really worked well.”

Horses getting a new start at THS include its newest arrival, the New York-bred filly Dr. Capote, who arrived last year. Bred and owned by Joe DiRico, Dr. Capote appeared headed to a good career on the track. Trained by Hall of Famer Bill Mott and ridden by Jerry Bailey, she was retired due to a tendon injury and, at 18, deserved “a new start,” as DiRico put it.

“I was thrilled to be able to find her this new home,” says DiRico of Dr. Capote. “Dr. Capote is a sweet and intelligent horse, perfect for working with people with mental issues. And with all the brushings she’s getting and the attention, she thinks she’s the ‘Queen Bee.’ I wish there were more places like Therapeutic Horses of Saratoga, which are really looking after the needs of retired racehorses.”

That commitment shines through in other programs as well. Working with ECS professionals, the organization uses members of the herd to provide team-building exercises to businesses, school classes, teams and other organizations. The THS program, HorsePlay, provides non-therapeutic, individually-tailored opportunities to learn horsemanship skills and how to care for horses. It also hosts birthday parties, where 5-year-olds-and-up can interact with the horses through obstacle courses and learn how to groom and lead them.

Strolling amidst the herd on a recent morning, trailed by DW Regal’s best friend, Broadway Straight or “George,” a Standardbred gelding who wants his ears scratched, LaRue delved into what it takes to fulfill the THS mission.

“Growing up, it had been more about teaching a horse just to obey,” she said. “Here, we are working in partnership and helping a lot of people in the process. It’s an awesome job and I love it.”

Five furlongs with…three-time Eclipse Award-winning jockey Irad Ortiz, Jr.

Irad Ortiz, Jr. has reached the pinnacle of the riding profession in capturing the last three Eclipse Awards for Outstanding Jockey. Ortiz, Jr. has led all North American riders in both total wins and earnings in every campaign since 2017 and will be aiming to reach that mark for a fifth consecutive year in 2021. But in addition to his 2016 Belmont Stakes win, his 11 Breeders’ Cup victories and his three riding titles at the prestigious summer meet at Saratoga Race Course, the soon-to-be 29-year-old also has been active in promoting the welfare of the New York Racing Association’s backstretch community.

For his efforts, Ortiz, Jr. was honored by the New York Racetrack Chaplaincy in July in recognition of his support. The New York Race Track Chaplaincy provides children's enrichment, social service, recreational, and educational programs, as well as non-denominational religious services to backstretch workers.

Besides your impact as a jockey, you’ve made a big difference off the track with your contributions to assist backstretch workers. When you were honored by the New York Race Track Chaplaincy in July, what did that award mean to you?

“It meant a lot to me. Since 2011 I’ve been here and when I wake up at 4 a.m. and get to the track, I always see them and I know and respect all those people, and I know they feel the same with me. They wake up so early and work all day with a horse that I’ll get on for only a minute and a half. They don’t earn that much money, and there’s not many things you can do to pay them back, so I feel if I can help them with something, I should. They are like a family to me.”

How important is it to set an example that it is important to help improve the lives of backstretch workers whose contributions keep the sport thriving?

“I hope they follow our example. Thank God I’m in a position where I can help. Some aren’t in the same position, but if people are in the right position, I think they should do it, because the backstretch puts a lot of work into the horses. Without them, this sport doesn’t run.”

How appreciative has the backstretch community been for the support?

“They all know me and they’re so good to me, so it makes me feel happy when I go out there and they are supporting me. I enjoy it.”

What has your working relationship been like with Chaplain Humberto Chavez and the New York Race Track Chaplaincy?

“Humberto always comes here. We pray before races. I know him well and if I can help, I always try to help. I try to do a little more little by little, and they always appreciate the help. I respect him a lot. They work so hard, and especially when the pandemic hit, he was right there. There aren’t too many people like that.”

After the difficult circumstances for the entire industry last year, how good does it feel to see more people on the backstretch and to be able to interact with them like in the past?

“Last year, it was so sad; when you saw people couldn’t work and people were scared to get close to other people. That’s not life. That’s not what I grew up seeing. It was a sad year. We lost some friends. After that, when I see people trying to help each other, I felt much better. Now that we went through that and we’re back together out there, I’m happy.”

In the community...

The Belmont Child Care Association will host its annual fundraiser on August 26 from 6:30-8:30 p.m. at Saratoga National Golf Club. The BCCA’s mission is to provide a safe, support and academically inspiring environment for the children of parents working in the racing backstretch community at Belmont Park, Aqueduct Racetrack and Saratoga Race Course. For more information on the BCCA and the fundraiser, visit www.BelmontChildCare.org.

On August 9, the Jockey Club Safety Net Foundation will host its Fashionable Fillies Luncheon at the Saratoga National Golf Club. The event, which benefits both the Jockey Club Safety Net Foundation and the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, will honor Carol Farmer and Debby Oxley. To purchase tickets, visit www.tjcfoundation.org/default.asp?content=TICKETS&...

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