Little Bit’s Horse Therapy is changing lives

Photo credit: Jessica Farren Photography

Covering 14 acres of the Eastside is a place that is changing lives every day. A former race stable in Redmond is now home to Little Bit Therapeutic Riding Center, which has been helping people with disabilities since its founding in 1976. Founder Margaret Dunlap, a woman living with Multiple Sclerosis, discovered that riding a horse helped to slow the advancement of her disease and Little Bit was formed. It has grown to serve over 200 riders with over 100 different diagnoses on a weekly basis—a far cry from the one horse and five riders who were present at its establishment 43 years ago.

Many physical therapists, speech therapists and other professionals have long touted the benefits of equine therapy, and the positive outcomes are evident—and inspiring: “I am constantly motivated by the progress I see in the people that we serve,” says Sharon Soldenwagner, Director of Development at Little Bit. People of all ages are helped through Little Bit, but families of youth in particular deal with obstacles that sometimes seem insurmountable.

Some non-verbal children have been able to strengthen their respiratory system through working with horses and, along with speech therapy, have improved their speech; other kids have started walking who couldn’t before. While the center alone does not claim full credit for these strides, there is much evidence to support the fact that Little Bit, along with other support systems in place, has been pivotal in progress and recovery. “Little Bit has almost become a catalyst, so it’s not unusual for another therapist elsewhere to say ‘what has changed?’ and the thing that’s changed it’s they added Little Bit to their week.”

Soldenwagner is one of several members who comprise a dedicated team of staff. They, along with hundreds of volunteers—some who arrive as early as 6 am—are passionate about meeting the individual needs of riders. Physically and mentally, of course, but also financially. Although working with horses can be expensive for many, the center offers financial aid to families who might find such opportunities out of reach due to economic factors.

Photo credit: Kimberly Lind Photography 

It’s not only the people who are well taken care of; the horses too are carefully looked after. There are almost 30 horses now at Little Bit, many who are retired from the Seattle Police Department. Each animal is allowed to give a maximum of 12 rides per week, and there are weight limits based on what would be most comfortable for the horse. None of them are ever left alone (there is always at least one other horse buddy around), and there are regular vet checkups to make sure the horses are feeling their best. One might not expect such a high level of cleanliness at a facility with horses, but each stable is. Although these amazing creatures are there to serve, Little Bit does its best to ensure that they are served in return, and receive the best care possible.

Little Bit is one of the largest therapeutic riding centers on the continent, and is internationally accredited by PATH (the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship. They offer seminars and summer camps in addition to therapy). The center also participates in the Special Olympics, and they plan to expand this program. Now, they offer equitation, pole bending, dressage and showmanship as well as the only Special Olympics equestrian competition site in the state of Washington. Even when the games aren’t going on, people are having fun. Soldenwagner mentions: “And the other thing too that we hear from moms is that a lot of times these kids are born with their disabilities, and so they’ve been in therapy for a very long time, and this doesn’t seem like therapy. It is very much so, but it doesn’t seem like it to them and so that’s a nice change.”

Little Bit Therapeutic Riding Center | 18675 NE 106th St., Redmond | (425) 882-1554