NYRA Cares: Much to gain for horses and people at Therapeutic Horses of Saratoga

August 3, 2021

SARATOGA SPRING, N.Y. – 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.”

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&ID=29

A helping hand…

Volunteers are requested to assist the Backstretch Employee Services Team for its Sunday dinners that are provided for the backstretch community throughout the summer meet at Saratoga Race Course. For more information on B.E.S.T. and to find out how to volunteer, visit www.bestbackstretch.org/volunteer.

About NYRA Cares

The New York Racing Association, Inc. (NYRA), which holds the exclusive franchise to conduct thoroughbred racing at Aqueduct Racetrack, Belmont Park and Saratoga Race Course, sponsors its NYRA Cares initiative to support the charitable endeavors of industry-related non-profits, service providers and community groups.

In New York, NYRA has long provided sustaining financial contributions to deepen the impact of the Backstretch Employee Service Team (BEST), the Racetrack Chaplaincy of New York and the Belmont Child Care Association (BCCA). 

NYRA Cares partners with national organizations such as the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund, the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, the American Red Cross, Ronald McDonald House Charities and the Marine Corps Toys for Tots Program among others. 

The Belmont Stakes Racing Festival is marked by a number of special events and community partnerships sponsored and supported by NYRA. These include the annual Belmont/Elmont Parade, the jockey visit to the Ronald McDonald House of Long Island and the Belmont Stakes Blue Ribbon Run for Prostate Cancer. 

Day 1 of the Belmont Stakes Racing Festival is highlighted by NYRA ‘s annual “Community Day”, which will take place in 2021 on June 3. Community Day shines a light on the mission and goals of regional non-profits and service providers who set up informational booths and participate in various activities designed to raise awareness and funding for their efforts.

At historic Saratoga Race Course, NYRA Cares’ signature initiative is the Community Outreach Booth, which each season highlights a total of 40 local and industry non-profit organizations by providing them with a unique platform to share information about their work and fundraising initiatives. One non-profit per day of the summer racing season receives the exclusive opportunity to interact with the thousands of guests who visit Saratoga Race Course. The Community Partner of the Day is also featured in the Post Parade racing program and on televisions throughout the venue. 

To learn more about NYRA Cares, visit: https://www.nyrainc.com/community.

NYRA Cares News Release

Photo: Laura LaRue (NYRA)

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