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SonRise Equestrian Foundation:The Healing Power of Horses

three women giving a boy on a white horse a high five

Alana Koski is the Executive Director, and an instructor, at SonRise Equestrian Foundation, a non-profit organization focused on making a difference in the lives of special needs kids through equine therapy. This month I had the chance to talk with her about the work the foundation is doing and learn more about the powerful ways that horses can help us heal.

portraits of a female next to a bay horse

Maria: Thank you, Alana, for making the time to talk as I know your days are more than filled with your dual roles at the foundation. Maybe we can start by talking about what the foundation does.

Alana: SonRise Equestrian Foundation is a non-profit organization guided by Christian-based values dedicated to improving the lives of children with special needs through therapeutic horse and ranch activities. SonRise offers therapeutic and ranch activities to any child with special needs, through four programs.

In The Saddle and In The Saddle Junior are our one-on-one riding lessons for kids with more physical and developmental challenges.

Team Equine is a a group ranch program that meets weekly with children who struggle with social and emotional challenges.

a child hugging a horse's head

Traveling Tails is a program where our miniature horses and ponies visit children in hospice, local hospitals, special-needs camps and schools.


Maria: You are both an instructor and the Executive Director of the foundation. Can you tell us a little about what you do there and how you came to be involved in this work?

Alana: My role within the foundation is multi-faceted. A typical day may include everything from bookkeeping, to exercising horses, to speaking at local foundations, to teaching lessons and working in the program. Since we are a small organization, we currently only have one employee, our program manager, Miriam. All the other work is done by our amazing volunteers.

a women holding a little girl next to a small horse

In 2001, God told me he had a job for me to do. I didn’t know what it was, but decided to just wait. Four years later, while at church, I saw a video of a woman discussing discipleship. There was one sentence in the video where she talked about her dream of starting a program for kids and horses. It was as if God tapped me on the shoulder and said that’s the job I have for you to do. The rest is history.

little boy touching a mini horse head with his forehead

Maria: I’ve personally witnessed the emotional healing that can happen in bonding with a horse. The foundation works with children with a wide variety of both physical and mental special needs - from ADHD and autism to cancer, spinal injuries, depression and more. How do you determine a course of equine therapy for each individual that comes to you with a need?

Alana: We have families fill out an application with questions regarding their child, as well as their doctor signing off that it is safe for them to ride. We then have them come to the ranch for an assessment, where we meet them and determine which program would best suit their needs.

We currently have a waiting list for most of our programing (some up to 5 years) but once they reach the top of the waiting list, they are invited to become an active participant.

The first riding lesson usually is getting to know the child and their abilities. After that, our instructors come up with a lesson plan for each student. After each lesson, our team puts notes into their file so that we can track progress and keep track of things to work on in future lessons.

All of our instructors are PATH CTRI (Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International, Certified Therapeutic Riding Instructor) so they are experienced in finding exercises and games to work on specific goals for each child.

There is a long list of the benefits of Therapeutic Riding at our website

Maria: But why horses? What makes them so suited to help people heal, especially for kids with special needs?

three women walking on the side of a horse

Alana: As prey animals with a herd instinct, horses have a unique ability to provide feedback to body language and emotions. They identify and respond to leadership and authority, and offer a non-judgmental and forgiving relationship. Physically, the gait of a horse mirrors the human gait and provides feedback to the nervous system, helping the rider experience "walking" when they are unable. Riding requires and stimulates core strength which then often translates into language and other life skills. Horses are a huge "motivator" and kids will work really hard to get the horse to walk on, using words, signs or motions that they normally wouldn't. Plus, riding a horse is just fun!

Maria: It seems like there is so much need for this type of therapy, yet most people wouldn’t necessarily seek out equine therapy because they don’t know about it. What is the foundation’s biggest challenge in carrying out its mission?

Alana: There is a huge need for these types of services. Most people are not aware of it but many doctors and therapists are starting to recommend it more and more. Due to the demands, our program has a five year waiting list for our one-on-one riding programs. Most of the other programs in the area also have waiting lists. I think our waiting list is so long due to the fact that our programming is free.

Our biggest challenge is probably not being able to serve as many children as need the service. It’s so hard to tell a parent that we have a five year waiting list. We know when they call that they are usually desperately seeking help.

special needs child happy smiling at a horse

Our goal is to be able to serve more kids, but we would need more employees to be able to carry this out.

Maria: What has been the most inspirational story that you’ve witnessed in working with the foundation?

Alana: There have been so many amazing things that I have witnessed while with SonRise. One that most stands out to me is when a 4 year old boy starting coming. He was fussy and curled in a fetal position. He had a rare genetic disease, didn't have sight and was unable to walk or have meaningful hand movements.

His first several rides were very rough. He was a little scared and barely had enough core strength to sit up on the horse. He needed maximum assistance. The lessons were short due to his lack of strength, but gradually as we worked with him he began to enjoy the rides. He was able to sit up straight, had moments of eye contact and would laugh and smile.

Finally, after a couple years, he was able to clap his hands to ask the horse to walk on! This was such a huge accomplishment for him! His parents had him in other therapies as well, and during those 2 years he became able to walk with a walker. His parents say riding is his favorite activity and he doesn't even realize he is getting therapy!

Maria: With everything else you have going on, are you still able to find time to ride? What type of riding do you most enjoy?

Alana: My love for horses and riding is one of the things that has been so fulfilling for me working in this field. I love to ride, but I do have a hard time finding enough time nowadays.

I love the discipline of Cowboy Dressage, and find that it gives me something to work on even when I am exercising the program horses.

a boy and an older man doing a high five

Maria: What else does my audience need to know? For anyone that is interested, how best can they get involved or help out?

Alana: Four ways to help: donate, volunteer, share our mission or attend our fundraiser. Here are some links you can share with your readers:

Thank you for sharing SonRise's story and how horses can help children with special needs!

Maria: Thank you so much, Alana, for talking to me today, and for all of the great work you and the foundation are doing to help make a better life for children with special needs!

Please visit to learn more about the SonRise Equestrian Foundation and the work they are doing in Danville, CA. If this story resonates with you, I encourage you to join me and consider how you can help support the foundation.


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