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Originally published Sunday, October 19, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Snohomish therapeutic-horseback-riding lessons for children ends

A Snohomish ranch that has provided therapeutic horseback riding lessons for disabled adults and children for nearly 20 years locked its gates for good last week, citing a bad economy.

Seattle Times staff reporter

A Snohomish ranch that has provided therapeutic horseback riding lessons for disabled adults and children for nearly 20 years locked its gates for good last week, citing a bad economy.

EquiFriends long relied on an October dinner and auction and a springtime fundraiser to cover the majority of its annual budget, said James D. McBride, president of the EquiFriends board of advisers.

But when board members learned last week that only 24 people had signed up for the auction, scheduled in Everett last night, and that the ranch had maxed out its $50,000 bank credit, they decided to close down, McBride said.

EquiFriends' six employees learned the news just before the closure Wednesday, and parents who brought their children in for lessons were turned away, said Bob Day, a former EquiFriends board member who also donated items to the ranch from his feed store.

As of last week, 85 children and adults took lessons at EquiFriends.

"A lot happened very fast," said Day. "It's just not EquiFriends, it's our economy. People are losing their homes and retirement. It's just a tough time."

EquiFriends opened in April 1989 as a lower-cost opportunity for horse therapy in Snohomish County, McBride said. The program, which drew many autistic and wheelchair-using clients, has almost always had a waiting list, he added.

EquiFriends charged $325 for a 10-week session, about a third of what it cost the organization to provide the service.

The program was modeled on Little Bit, a similar horse-therapy organization in Woodinville.

Instructors at the EquiFriends ranch used horses to improve riders' mobility and agility, strengthen muscles and build self-confidence. Riders participated in vaulting exercises and dressage, which involves using body movements to guide a horse through various maneuvers.

"You can't imagine what it is like to watch. Kids who can't sit up for 10 minutes are even getting their hands off the saddle and are playing," said Carrie Cormier, who was executive director at EquiFriends. "Wait lists are long [at therapeutic-equestrian programs] and insurance doesn't pay. For many of our students this is the highlight of their week."

Sharon Bartlett, who lives in Albuquerque, N.M., sent her 15-year-old developmentally disabled daughter, Rachel, to live with her grandmother in Mukilteo in August so she could get lessons at EquiFriends.

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"She has academic levels of third and fourth grade. But with these animals there is no judging; the horses make them realize if they can do that [ride] they can go out into the world," Bartlett said. "My husband said she's growing up. She's more articulate and more confident."

McBride, a Redmond lawyer, said he has dipped into his personal savings account to pay employees' final paychecks and other expenses, but one employee said not all have been paid.

McBride said they picked Wednesday to close the ranch because it was the last day in the employees' pay period.

EquiFriends is looking to sell its 3-acre property, 10 therapy horses and other items to dig itself out of the hole, Day said. The horses are now being cared for by a former employee and will be turned over to Little Bit for care through early next year, McBride said.

McBride said the board hopes to have a spaghetti feed to raise enough money to repay families who will miss out on lessons they have already paid for.

The fall auction and dinner, which in the past has attracted about 200 people, typically generates nearly $100,000 in donations to help cover the ranch's $375,000 annual budget, McBride said.

While Day and employees are confident that this is the end of EquiFriends, McBride said is he hopeful they can somehow reopen.

Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or jensullivan@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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