By Mary Minor Davis –
In 1973, Barbara Rector had a near-death experience when the horse she was riding in a local competition took a bad turn. Both the horse and rider flew through the air. Both landed on their backs – the horse on top of Barbara. Neither was breathing when paramedics arrived.
Several months later, Rector was still recovering at what is now University of Arizona Medical Center. No one knew whether she would ever walk. She refused to accept that possibility and committed to riding horses again. With the help of her friend, Nancy McGibbon, an occupational and physical therapist, she not only rode again – but the horse provided the therapy her body needed.
“The rhythmical movement of the horse – which we now know can help in spinal injuries – helped to regenerate the spine,” Rector said.
When she shared with her doctor what she’d been doing, he asked her, “If it’s working so well for you, why don’t you share this?”
Rector and McGibbon set out to do just that. A chance meeting with Bazy Tankersley, owner of Al-Marah Arabian Farm, led to the organization of Therapeutic Riding of Tucson – known as TROT. Maudie Hunter Warfel, a renowned equine therapist for people with disabilities, was brought in to provide the training and consultation on the equipment needed. Volunteers gathered or made what was needed.
TROT held its first class in the fall of 1974 at Al-Marah with four deaf students from the Arizona State Schools for the Deaf and the Blind.
Forty years later, TROT has grown into an internationally renowned organization that blazed new trails in establishing programs for people of all ages with both mental and physical challenges. More than 2,000 riders and clients participate in the programs annually.
“We had no money,” McGibbon said. “We just said it had to be done – and we did it. It was a labor of love for many, many years. Still is.”
TROT found a permanent home in 1986. Working with Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry, TROT coordinated a deal with the Tucson and Pima County parks and recreation departments, the Flood Control District, Tucson City Council and the Pima County Board of Supervisors for a long-term lease at 8920 E. Woodland Road, which is off East Tanque Verde Road.
“I believe these five points of government collaboration was testimony to Tucson’s support of the TROT mission and purpose,” Rector said. But they were so focused on the students “that we really didn’t focus on the fact that we were building a business – until we had to,” Rector said. “We really felt at that point that it was real.”
The board hired staff, found horses and implemented more in-depth training for the horses and volunteers. The John Parelli Natural Horsemanship training program was adopted and learned by all volunteers to ensure every horse would have the same training, ensuring consistency in behavior.
TROT holds certification in the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International. In the beginning, everything was called “therapeutic riding,” which consists of recreational activities designed to enhance behavioral, physical, mental and cognitive abilities. Over the years, equine therapy started to become more specialized. So did TROT.
In 1994, TROT added psychotherapy and hired a mental health specialist. In 2006, TROT started one of the first programs to work with veterans. In 2010, with support from a grant from Angel Charity for Children, TROT added a clinic offering hippotherapy, a form of physical, occupational and speech therapy in which a therapist uses the characteristic movements of a horse to provide carefully graded motor and sensory input.
Unlike therapeutic horseback riding, the movement of the horse is a means to a treatment goal and isn’t about teaching riding skills.
All riders make their way to TROT by referral, working with the academic and medical community. Dave and Tina Walton discovered TROT two years ago. Their daughter, Laura, 9, has Rett syndrome, which prevents her from speaking, walking or using her hands. Tina said Laura suffers from a lack of muscle tone, needs to be moving constantly for flexibility and has trouble initiating communication.
After one year working with Kristen Revis, TROT’s occupational and speech therapist in the hippotherapy program, and her horse, Newta, the Waltons see improvements at many levels.
“It’s amazing,” Tina said. “Riding has given her balance that she didn’t have before. She shows initiative and reaction to things. Simple communication is a major celebration. She gets so excited coming here.”
Tucson artist Diana Madaras, this year’s honorary chair for TROT’s 40th anniversary open house, got involved more than 15 years ago when TROT asked for a donation. Since then, she helped develop other fundraising programs and even donated her horse, Bisbee, to TROT.
“They’re just very compassionate people,” she said. “I see the faces on the children and the veterans when they interact with these animals. It’s very life-changing.”
Laurel Brown, president of the board, believes TROT has room to grow. It does not have a covered arena, which limits the ability to run programs and can limit the types of riders they serve, because many disabilities are affected by climate. TROT would like to expand its veterans program, and this year TROT will extend its partnership with Tu Nidito Children and Family Services, a nonprofit in Tucson that works with critically ill children and their families.
TROT will take a moment in September to thank the community for its support. Madaras said TROT also hopes to raise awareness for those who have yet to discover that “it does a lot of good for a lot of people.”
TROT’s Ruby Jubilee
Saturday, Sept. 27, 4 to 8 p.m. 8920 E. Woodland Road
food and fun
Call (520) 749-2360 or