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Ex warriors find peace in therapeutic riding program
vet riding pic
Veteran Daniel Crowley is given horse riding instruction from Susan Albritton at Diamond Bar Arena in Ceres as veteran and long-time rider Warner Norleen follows along. - photo by JEFF BENZIGER / The Journal

Daniel Crowley, a nine-year Navy and one-year Army veteran, remembers two years when he allowed life to restrict him to the couch. Parkinson’s Disease not only causes him tremors, but retirement threatened to reduce him to an inactive lifestyle. But a free chance to routinely ride horses has redeemed him.

Specifically, the Boots and Saddles therapeutic riding program offered at the Diamond Bar Ranch in rural Ceres has given Crowley a new focus.

“One thing I found is it builds self-confidence,” said Crowley. “For several years after my retirement, I just had no desire to do anything other than sit around and vegetate and now I’m with SCORE as a consultant and second in command in the VFW post. I’ve taken on a lot of leadership, things I used to do when I’m active. Now it’s coming back.”

Four times a week, riding instructors Michelle Norleen and Susan Albritton – who formed the Ceres-based program in 2010 – offer free horse riding sessions to American veterans suffering from injuries or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The riding experience has a calming effect on veterans and in Crowley’s case has even slowed his tremors.

“There’s something very therapeutic about the riding for somebody who has Parkinson’s or PTSD even,” stated Norleen. “Different levels of healing occur. For the nervous system in Parkinson’s it just somehow resets the brain and resets the nervous system. It’s just amazing to see. For the PTSD it’s the connection between the horse and the rider. With that bond and that connection they can, for a while, forget what’s happened. The PTSD never really goes away but it subsides so much so that in their daily life they can feel that."

Veterans from as far away as Stockton and La Grange have signed up for the program through either the Modesto and Livermore Veteran’s Affairs facilities since they have agreed to keep applications and qualify veterans that they are physically able to ride. Riders can spend all morning riding, which includes trotting in the arena, a short trail ride and putting horse through an obstacle course at the Central Avenue facility.

“It takes a trust and a bond between horse and rider to actually maneuver some of the obstacles that are back there,” said Norleen.

Sometimes the healing takes place between veterans and their spouses who get involved as volunteers.

“We’ve seen a lot of marriages healed,” said Albritton, “because spouses can come out and volunteer. And when we go down to the obstacle course, the veteran is asking the horse to go up the ‘cowboy staircase,’ which is actually two steps up and two steps down the other side. And they’re trying to figure out how to communicate with their horse to say ‘yes I want to do this.’ The spouse gets to sit back and understand the difference between anger, frustration and how does that person think and how to problem solve and how to not to be in front of the anger, in front of the problem but learn to stand at the side with them, supporting them, but let them figure out the problem. It gives a greater insight into how people think and for the spouses to sit back and do that is a tremendous counseling in itself. God does the counseling; we just provide the horses.”

Albritton, said Norleen, has a gift for selecting the perfect riding horses, all of which have a “sweet” riding “horse-anility.” The 12 horses used in the program were all “thrown away” but “have a new life here,” said Albritton.

“She’s passed up several horses that just weren’t going to be suitable for our program,” said Norleen. “Selection is very important for our program.”

Norleen and Albritton have been around horses for years and saw a need to start a riding program to benefit veterans.

“We looked and saw that there were already a couple of programs for children and disabled kids and we just decided to have an all veteran program,” said Norleen. “They’ve done so much for our country, we don’t charge them a dime for coming out to do this and it’s really benefitted the community.”

As the women were dreaming of a program, they happened to be visiting Diamond Bar Arena where Kim Parson spotted them riding and brought out husband Shane. After seeing the financial books of the 503c non-profit corporation, the Parsons invited the women to use their facility free of charge until the program is solidly operating and donated two horses. Currently the $12,000 annual budget runs solely by donations.

“We run strictly on donations from the community and if that’s lacking it comes out of our pockets,” said Albritton. “We have both invested literally thousands of dollars.”

For more information on the program call 204-4289 or visit