Denise Tomey
Denise Tomey
Denise Tomey
Executive Director, Carousel Ranch
Dr. Kent Robbins
Board Member, Carousel Ranch

Interview by Leon Worden
Signal Senior Editor

Tuesday, June 18, 2006
(Television interview conducted June 7, 2006)

    "Newsmaker of the Week" is presented by the SCV Press Club and Comcast, and hosted by Signal Senior Editor Leon Worden. The program premieres every Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, repeating Sundays at 8:30 a.m.
    This week's newsmakers are Denise Tomey, executive director, and Dr. Kent Robbins, a member of the board of directors, of Carousel Ranch, a nonprofit therapeutic riding ranch in Agua Dulce. Questions are paraphrased and answers may be abbreviated for length.

Signal: What is Carousel Ranch?

Tomey: Carousel Ranch is a program that offers equestrian therapy for children with special needs. We work with about 84 children a week, all ages, all disabilities.

Signal: Where is this place?

Tomey: We just relocated this year to a ranch of our own in Agua Dulce, up Sierra Highway.

Signal: Why do you use horses for physical therapy?

Robbins: There seems to be a special type of interaction between many of our disabled riders and the horses. It's a combination of the physical exercise, the interaction with the horse, and the building of confidence in different skills that many of these kids with disabilities don't have a lot of in their daily lives. We provide it through our equestrian therapy.

Signal: So it's not like going to a gym; what kind of disabilities do these kids have?

Tomey: Any and all disabilities. There are the common disabilities that come to everyone's minds — cerebral palsy, autism, Down Syndrome — but we have a lot of children with rare genetic disorders, kids who are undiagnosed, kids who are severely disabled, and others who are mildly disabled. They're all individualized sessions.
    When you say, "It's not like going to the gym," it's not; it's therapy disguised as fun. If you have cerebal palsy and you go to therapy four days a week and you're in a therapy setting and you're being asked to do these things, it's not very fun. But when you're asked to do these same types of things on the back of the horse, the child doesn't know they're receiving therapy. They're horseback riding. But they're asked to do those same things. You may be asked to reach for a ball in a therapy setting, but on the back of the horse, if you're asked to reach up and give Banner (the horse's name) a hug, it's different. We're able to maneuver them through similar exercises or work toward similar goals while they're having a good time on the back of the horse.

Signal: Are doctors in charge of the program? Who works on staff?

Dr. Kent Robbins
Dr. Kent Robbins
Robbins: A lot of our staff are trained in equestrian therapy through a national certifying agency. In addition, we do some extra things that we found to be more useful with kids with really severe disabilities, such as severe cerebral palsy as well as ... orthopedic handicaps, where they're not able to walk, say. Or even some people with several mental retardation syndromes where they're not able to interact and participate in a regular physical therapy program.
    We don't have physicians on the staff; in fact, I'm the only one on the board of directors, because it's kind of an evolving medical therapy, if you will. In the past, it was viewed as a simple physical therapy exercise, but now we're beginning to see there's a lot more to it than just the exercise component.

Signal: There is a national certification for horseback therapy? How popular is this?

Tomey: There are over 500 programs throughout the country. There is a national standard or a national organization, North American Riding for the Handicapped Association. However, much of what we do isn't necessarily part of NARHA. Our program is a little bit different because we do an individualized program, and it's not just physical therapy because we're not physical therapists; it isn't even actually physical therapy. It's kind of a combination of physical therapy, occupational therapy, it could be speech — whatever it is that a child's deficit areas are, whatever that child needs to work on, are the types of things we're going to work on, on the back of the horse.
    We do have a physical therapist who works with us three days a week, and she sees her clients there. However, our staff (members) are not physical therapists; they're trained by our program director, Becky Graham, who started the program with me. And it isn't something that necessarily has to be done by a physical therapist or an occupational therapist or a physician.

Signal: How often are therapy sessions held?

Tomey: (Clients) come in for a therapy session every week. So if you're the 2 o'clock Tuesday, you come every Tuesday at 2 p.m. We teach four days a week, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday. We do 84 individualized sessions right now.

Signal: How did horseback therapy get started?

Tomey: Started in general? I think it's been going on, I think since World War II. From what I heard, after the war, they put soldiers who were injured on horseback. I don't think they were trying to do any type of therapy, but they saw results, from people who had injuries, by riding the back of the horse.
    The theory behind it is that the movement of the horse causes changes in the body and in the brain, and in a way, they're able to adapt and move their bodies. Over time, it's evolved into 500-plus therapy programs throughout the country — some that are very small, some that are large. But I think it is becoming a more and more accepted treatment.

Signal: How long has Carousel Ranch been operating?

Tomey: This is our ninth year. We started in 1997. Both Becky and I had worked for another program for 12 years before starting Carousel Ranch. She and I had both been doing it over 20 years.

Signal: Kent, how long have you been on the board?

Robbins: Let's see, (I'm) approaching the second year, and I also have a son who rides at Carousel Ranch. Almost 2-1/2 years, he's been riding at Carousel Ranch.

Signal: What attracted you to Carousel Ranch?

Robbins: Strangely enough, we'd been referred by a friend who had a child with cerebral palsy. My son actually has an undiagnosable genetic disorder. He has a mental retardation syndrome, and he has some problems with walking and movements with his hands — motor issues, we call them. He didn't seem to fit what I thought was going to be useful for equestrian therapy. But then my wife said: Really give it a look. Check it out.
    We went down there, and the (things) I was seeing some of these kids with disabilities do on horseback was nothing short of amazing. And it doesn't even have to be a physical handicap. I've seen children with autism who are able to do things on horseback and actually get way beyond their disabilities and really excel in something. So I saw that and said that's perfect for my son, and sure enough, he's done amazing things since he started.

Signal: What kind of a doctor are you?

Robbins: I trained in emergency medicine and started doing medical genetics research, with autism and rare genetic disorders such as those that cause mental retardation syndrome, and also some physical handicaps. I'm also a professor over at Cal State Northridge.

Signal: How old is your son?

Robbins: He's going to be 6 in August.

Signal: What kind of changes have you seen?

Robbins: It's amazing. The types of things that we've seen were beyond the physical stuff. What I expected for him was increasing his strength, because when he started, he wasn't able to walk upstairs; he wasn't able to run; he wasn't able to pull himself up with his arms; he really didn't have a lot of upper-body strength. So I was hoping just for improvements in that.
    What we got were interesting things such as an increase in the ability to communicate. He doesn't talk, currently. But he is beginning to make more and more sounds. Actually, his use of sign language improved when he did this. His confidence in beginning to try new things, such as walking upstairs, improved after he started doing this.
    The most amazing transformation was his ability to participate in things that previously he wouldn't want to do. If we asked him to take a pen and draw on paper — before the horse therapy, he really wouldn't do a whole lot with that. But then he began to get more strength and more confidence, and he began to try new things that I wouldn't even have thought of being related to horse therapy.
    That was the main therapy he was getting at the time. He wasn't getting any physical therapy at the time, because the insurance won't cover it and he wasn't getting these other types of traditional therapy. So we had nothing else to attribute it to except the horse therapy. And as it turns out, lots of other people have the same type of stories, despite whatever their disabilities are.

Signal: Have you been able to make a connection between Carousel Ranch and what you do for a living?

Robbins: Strange you should ask that. As a matter of fact, we are hoping to embark on a research project to begin to prove—

Signal: Who's the "we"?

Robbins: Carousel Ranch and myself — to begin to prove some of the medical benefits we can get from horse therapy and equestrian therapy.
    The first group of people we're going to look at is autistic individuals and see some of the changes, because we've heard, from the parents, a lot of fascinating stories about improvements that you wouldn't think would be associated with it. I'm going to try to blend the two with the disability research that I do ,and then also with the equestrian therapy. We're going to begin to prove some of the stuff that we've known for years. It's an interesting job.

Signal: These are all kids at Carousel Ranch?

Tomey: Mostly kids. We (also) do adults. We've had some adults with multiple sclerosis. We've had a couple of parents who had injuries and illnesses after we were already treating their children, so we've had them. We're open to adults; we seem to just mostly draw children.

Signal: Are there fees involved?

Tomey: There are fees involved, but it's based on ability to pay. No one's ever turned down based on finances. There is a $25 accession fee, which covers about a little less than half of the cost. That deficit we make up through fundraising and donations. However, the $25 fee, if the family is able to pay — and I'd say only about 10 percent actually can pay the $25 — then that's great. And if they can't pay, then we'll either look for a full scholarship or a partial scholarship, depending on what their needs are. If they come to me and they say, "I can afford $10 a week," they're going to pay $10 a week.
    When it's their turn on the waiting list, when they get in, it's regardless of funding. We've been fortunate and able to serve all of the children without having to turn people away for finances.

Signal: How many kids, or people in general, over the last nine years have come through Carousel Ranch?

Tomey: We just figured that out recently, after that question came up at a board meeting. I would say over the last nine years, we've probably (served) 350 to over 400 children.

Signal: What kind of successes stand out in your mind?

Tomey: There's so many different stories for every child. The big successes that people usually think of are children who have either walked or talked as a result of riding, and there have been those. I would say over the last nine years, there have probably been about five or six children whom I've seen walk as a result of riding...
    We stand all our children on the back of the horse, whether you can't sit up by yourself, can't hold your head up, or whether you're physically able, you stand on the back of the horse, and the movement of the horse moves your body in a way that just can't be replicated in any other way. If you don't use those muscles, normally, and you sit in a wheelchair all the time and you're on the back of the horse, standing, the movement underneath you is moving your pelvic area and your legs in a way that simulates walking.
    We have seen probably five or six children learn to walk (and have) seen several children say their first words, including a lot of kids with autism. One mom —•a great story — her child had never spoken; he was 6 years old and started riding with us, and after I think six weeks, he not only spoke, but (also) spoke a full sentence. "Mommy, go ride Banner today," "Horsey Banner today." Great stories like that.
    Children ... tell their horse to walk when they don't speak, and all of a sudden the word "walk" comes out. All of a sudden they're telling their horse, because they want that horse to walk. But a lot of times it's the littler things that we see all the time, every day, every week. It's the smaller things. It's the child who won't ever hold on to anything. Mom says, "You'll never get their hands to hold on to the handles. They'll never be able to do it." All of a sudden we can get their hands down and they're supporting themselves and then they can hold themselves up to sit. Maybe that means they can ride in the grocery cart, because they can now sit in there and hold the grocery cart.
    Or maybe they're not going to learn to walk — maybe they're never going to learn to walk — but maybe they can bear enough weight to transfer from the wheelchair to the car. A lot of times it's the littler things that improve the quality of life for the family and the child that really make the majority of the difference.

Signal: So the kids stand on the back of the horse?

Tomey: Well they sit, and then they sit sideways, and they sit backwards and they're up on their hands and knees, and they stand. They do a variety of different exercises on the back of the horse.

Signal: The staff members hold their hands—

Tomey: Absolutely. We're supporting them from the side.

Signal: It must take a lot of staff members.

Tomey: It does. It's 3-to-1 for almost every lesson. And we do have about, probably about 20 percent, maybe 25 percent of our students are actually learning to ride. So as they progress, either their skills improve to the point that they can ride independently or they become of an age where they want to learn to control the horse. Then we move them into riding, and then it can be one instructor for the child, when they're advanced, or somebody leading and just an instructor with a child. But it is very staff-intensive.

Signal: Do you also have volunteers?

Tomey: (There are) a lot of volunteers as well. Ideally, it should be one staff member or volunteer leading the horse and a volunteer spotting. If enough volunteers show up, that's the ideal situation. We do have a lot of great volunteers, we really do. (We're) very fortunate.

Signal: What do volunteers get out of it? What do their interests seem to be?

Tomey: Sometimes we get volunteers who have a horse background; sometimes they're just looking for something to be involved in. I think what they get out of it is the same thing that we get out of it.
    I think for us, something great happens every day, and you come there and you feel so good about what you're doing. I think for Becky and I, we're some of the luckiest people that that's actually our job. We get to do this for a living. You go away feeling good at the end of the day. You made a difference.
    I think that's what they get out of it — they have a sense of satisfaction. They get to know the children. The children love the volunteers and the staff, and you see them doing things because you helped them that they didn't do before. I think that's really what they get out of it.

Signal: Who trains the horses? Where do you get them?

Tomey: Every week, people call us wanting to donate horses. It takes a very special horse to do this. All of the horses are donated. I think we've only got one that we actually purchased through a grant. Every other horse has been donated. They all come to us sort of as a second career. They no longer can do whatever it is they were doing.
    We have a mule that was a race mule and a show mule, (and as) they get older, they get arthritis. We have horses that were cutting horses — great horses in their previous careers that can no longer do that kind of work. So the owners are looking for a good place for them. They either come to us with the disposition to do the work — we don't really train them, although continual training goes into them — but they have to come with us and be able to demonstrate that they can do this job and that they're not going to spook, and that they are calm and that they can handle it. Because you have kids who will hit them, kick them, bite them, kids with unbalanced weight—

Signal: You probably don't have stallions.

Tomey: (Laughter) No. And they're all very, very calm. They have to be. If they exhibit any behavior that's not, then they can't work at Carousel Ranch.

Signal: Kent, either in your studies or at Carousel Ranch, have you experimented with treatment methods that just didn't work out?

Robbins: Related to equestrian therapy? Actually, no. I think that the program that's been developed at Carousel Ranch in particular is such that I haven't see anything that I would even change.
    Specifically, in response to kids who maybe have behavioral issues such as autism or even some of the undiagnosable kids — because there really aren't any set, defined goals for them in general — it's always in the individualized goal. The types of things we do with the vaulting exercises and as the kids get older, the independent riding exercises, it seems to work so well that you don't want to mess with it because it's working so beautifully.

Signal: You mentioned that there are other horseback therapy programs out there; one here in the Santa Clarita Valley is Heads-Up Therapy on Horseback. Carousel Ranch is a well-known name around town, even though it's only nine years old. How did Carousel Ranch achieve that kind of popularity?

Tomey: I think part of it is because of the program we've created. I think we have an exceptional program and I think that the children are making great strides because of what they do at the ranch. But I think the other part has been, we've been very fortunate to have great community support. We have a great board, and board members (have come) onto our board and helped us make Carousel Ranch a known name.
    When we moved out to Santa Clarita seven (or) eight years ago, we didn't know anyone and nobody knew what Carousel Ranch was. But I think through the board, and through the contacts we've made and the supporters that we have, they've really helped us get the word out.
    I think the difference is, we're a different type of equestrian therapy program than most, being that we're able to offer individualized therapy, being that we are a relatively large program. We serve a lot of children. I think the children and the successes that they're achieving have put us out there. People are interested in what it is because it's different, but we've been very lucky in this community.

Robbins: If I can address it from a parent's point of view, what's interesting — I were to refer somebody to Carousel Ranch, which I've referred probably over 100 people in the past two years alone, what's interesting is that it's the stories of the individual children, all of them. The stories that you hear are nothing short of amazing, especially from my point of view when I've taken care of children for years. The stories are what begin to draw more and more people to Carousel Ranch.
    The individualized therapies and the types of things that we're doing with these children and the advances that each of the children are making is the best PR in the world. We're actually doing something positive, and you can't suppress that story. That's the story that seems to draw a lot of people to Carousel Ranch — that we do have an individual success story for every single child. It can be as simple as, they were able to sit in school for 10 minutes without an aide for the first time. For a parent with a child with disabilities, that is a milestone. It can be something (such) as walking, or even my son said his first words after Heart of the West fundraiser last year, which he performed in.
    That was just amazing for us. We never thought he was going to speak. So those individual stories, they come around the community and they show what we're all about, which is basically individually helping the children to succeed.

Signal: Another story we've heard in the last few years has been the ordeal of trying to find a permanent home. You were at Atlasta Ranch, which is the old Burbank Creamery in Placerita Canyon. Then you moved to Sand Canyon, where some of the neighbors were concerned about a business operating in the rural community. How did you find the place in Agua Dulce? How are the neighbors there?

Tomey: So far the neighbors have been wonderful in Agua Dulce. I think we really fit in. And it has been a rough couple of years with all of that. And that might be a reason why we became well known in this valley, too, is because ... the story we always heard is that Carousel Ranch was homeless. I am so glad that that is no longer the story.
    We had made offers on many properties. We had been in escrow on properties that just fell through and fell through. And we felt like, why does this keep happening to us? I think the reason it kept happening to us was because we hadn't found this ranch yet. This ranch is everything and more than we could have ever hoped for.

Signal: Where exactly is it?

Tomey: It's in Agua Dulce, off Sierra Highway just above La Chıne (French Cuisine restaurant). About eight-tenths of a mile past La Chıne, on Rocking Horse Road. It couldn't be a more perfect name. We just fell into this property. It belonged to Michael McMeel, who was the drummer for Three Dog Night. He ran a camp for inner-city children, and he was looking to move to Tennessee. It wasn't even on the market, and someone had forwarded an e-mail to me to see if I wanted to buy some of his pipe corrals. One thing led to another and we were e-mailing back and forth and he said, "You've got to see my place." (We) went up there, and 27 days later it was ours.

Signal: How big is the property?

Tomey: It's 10 acres.

Signal: You were able to purchase it?

Tomey: We were able to purchase it. Mission Valley Bank really helped us, because we did not have the funds to purchase it. We had, through Heart of the West the last couple of years, saved up enough to put down. But that was all we had. Mission Valley was able to do the loan for us with no co-signers or anything, which — it's very hard for a nonprofit (organization) to obtain a real estate loan. So I think they took a little bit of a chance on us and helped us get into it in 27 days. I mean, there was just no time for anything. Now we're looking to the future to try to raise money to help pay for the property and make the changes that we need to (make) to the property — and some day (we) want to put up a covered arena and some things like that. But it's nice to have a permanent place to be.

Signal: What kind of grant funding do you receive?

Tomey: There are private foundations that give grants, and I would say grants are only about 10 percent of our budget. People think that you can go out there and get millions of dollars in grants, and it's just not true. But there are foundations that are generous. We get a grant through the city of Santa Clarita that funds 10 children; some full scholarships and some partial scholarships; they have to meet income guidelines. So we have a grant through the city. We have some private foundations that have given grants. We got a grant last year from the County of Los Angeles, First Five tobacco funds.
    There are all different types of grants out there to apply for. We're looking to apply for grants for the capital campaign, as well, to try to make some improvements on the property in the future.

Signal: Tell us about that capital campaign.

Tomey: We haven't officially kicked off our capital campaign, but we're looking at doing probably about a $1.5-million campaign, part of which is to help pay down the mortgage on the property to a reasonable amount that we'll be able to sustain.
    The other part is to make the changes to the property, like build a covered arena. There's plumbing and electrical and infrastructure-type changes, and fencing, and a lot of different things that need to be done to the property for the long term. A covered arena would allow us to — in years like this when we have two solid months of rain and it's very difficult to be an equestrian therapy program — we would be able to teach when it rained and after it rained, and we wouldn't have the issues with the mud. And when it was 105 as it is in Santa Clarita, the children wouldn't have to ride at night like we're going to have to do for the summer. It would make it so we can constantly provide the therapy with no interruptions.

Signal: Do you partner with other local organizations?

Tomey: Just individuals who support the ranch certainly have helped. Newhall Land came and did our Make a Difference Day project through the city and through the SCV Resource Center. We had 120 volunteers on Make a Difference Day come, and they came with bulldozers and tractors. That was the weekend that we moved, and we couldn't have done it without them. They literally moved us in and made the property ready to open.
    We don't really work with other organizations; some schools do field trips to the ranch, and we'll serve other organizations. We're looking to do a campfire night with the Michael Hoefflin Foundation this summer and some different things like that, but we work with a lot of business and organizations that help us.

Signal: Tell us about your fundraisers.

Robbins: The one that's coming up is the most impressive, and actually it's just a wonderful event — the Heart of the West fundraiser. That one, it seems that all of Santa Clarita comes out. It's just amazing. We have auctions and we have raffles, and it's a fun event. It supports Carousel Ranch; people who attend also get to see some of the children ride, which is probably the highlight of the entire thing. It's just amazing to see these kids go. It's a really, really nice way for people to begin to, if they want to support us, participate in something fun, get to meet us, get to see some of the riders and kind of get a feel for what we're about.

Signal: If you have a sliding fee scale where people are paying a maximum of half the actual cost, these fundraisers must be important.

Tomey: They're crucial to us. Now that we have our own property, even more than ever we couldn't operate without it. Because really, we have to be able to sustain that program side, raising money for the program, while we're raising money for the property. That's new for us. But Heart of the West is an amazing event, and it has raised a lot of money the last couple of years. I hope it'll continue to (do so). It's coming up on Saturday, Aug. 26 this year.

Signal: Will it be on the grounds of Carousel Ranch?

Tomey: It's not on our grounds; it's actually at the Blomgren family ranch, which is a beautiful private home on Sierra Highway. This is our third year having it there. It's absolutely a beautiful place to have it. It is outdoors, and like Kent said, our children do a demonstration; we have live and silent auctions; we have a casino; we have a great dinner.

Signal: Where do people get more information?

Tomey: The Web site is and the phone is 268-8010.

Signal: And if parents have kids who might qualify for your programs, that's how they find you?

Tomey: Absolutely. They can either e-mail me; eventually they need to speak to me on the phone to be put onto our waiting list.

Signal: How long is your waiting list?

Tomey: It does take an average of a year to get into Carousel Ranch. I hate to say that, but there was a point where it was 18 months, and we're working very hard to open new spaces and expand, while not expanding too quickly.
    We do continue to expand, and the reason that it takes a long time is because once you're at Carousel Ranch, you're there for as long as you want to use the space. Out of my first three students, two of them are still there.

Signal: How long do people typically stay in the program?

Tomey: Years. Years. The majority have probably been in 5-plus years.
    That's why spaces open slowly. I always tell people, a year goes by quickly. Think about last summer; it was just here. A year goes by quickly. Everybody gets in. The last batch that I took in, I even had a couple that had only waited 8 (to) 10 months, which was so exciting for me because that was a really short wait for us.
    It's worth the wait. You will get in, and sometimes it's a shame because parents will call and say, "Oh, there's a year list," and not put their child on the list and then call me back a year later: "You should have put them on the list." The year goes by quickly.
    And we are expanding. We have probably taken in eight new kids in the last couple of months, so we are continuing to expand. (We've) got to do it slowly so that we can maintain the quality of what we do. That's really important to us.

    See this interview in its entirety today at 8:30 a.m., and watch for another "Newsmaker of the Week" on Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, available to Comcast and Time Warner Cable subscribers throughout the Santa Clarita Valley.

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