Ann Marriner’s tireless work with developmentally disabled children and adults alike is assisted by a whole stable of helpers — quite literally.
As the founder of “Let’s Ride,” Marinner runs an equine therapy program, based out of a ranch in Tujunga, in which she helps clients improve both motor and communicative skills by having them interact in some capacity with the horses on the ranch.
“Horses are so effective in therapy because they’re like a mirror,” explains Elisabeth Sadler, who conducts equine-facilitated psychotherapy on the ranch for individuals and couples, an endeavor she and Marinner are working to dovetail in the future. And Marinner has not only worked with developmentally disabled people for 20 years, but has also loved horses her entire life. She began working in equine therapy in 2010 and founded her own program in 2013.
Because the severity of the clients’ handicaps varies tremendously, Marinner tailors her approach. While some actually ride on the horses, others make progress by simply getting in the saddle or by petting the horses gently and feeding them carrots. Marinner employs all kinds of methods to help each client feel successful while interacting with the horses, whether it be through sign language (which Marinner claims horses can actually understand far more than we realize) or other creative avenues of thinking.
“It’s all about thinking outside the box, making a big deal of celebrating it if it does work, and, if it doesn’t, moving on and trying something else,” says Marinner. “For example, I have a client who, at first, would dive off the horse wanting to play with leaves on the ground. So I said to him, ‘If you stay still on the horse, I’ll take you to a tree with a whole bunch of leaves.’ Sure enough, he stayed still on the horse and was so happy when we got to the tree.”
In conducting equine therapy with her clients, Marinner has learned time and again that every day is different, and that a method can succeed one day and fail the next. “I have one client in particular with an extremely short attention span, who we’ve only been able to get up on the horse twice this month,” says Marinner. “But I’ll take two days out of the month any day, because for me, that’s a big step. The little step for them is a big step for us because we got him up there. He didn’t fight me. He didn’t spit. He didn’t do any of that. He was happy and calm. It’s all about taking little teeny accomplishments like that and amplifying them by saying, ‘Oh my God! That was so good!’”
When you hear some of Marinner’s many incredible accounts of past sessions, such as a young, severely handicapped boy who rode on the horse without using his hands, or a young girl with severe ADHD who remained so perfectly still on a horse that a butterfly rested on her shoulder for several minutes, it’s clear that Marinner has a gift. But according to Marinner, her daily efforts are boosted tremendously by the horses themselves, which she believes have the capacity to sense the clients’ handicaps.
“To me, they’re magical,” observes Marinner of her horses when interacting with her special needs clients. “I’ve never seen anything like it before until I actually owned horses and did this. You can put a normal rider on a horse, and the horse will give you a hard time, because horses do that. They test you. But the minute you put a handicapped rider on a horse, it’s gone. They know the difference. Handicapped and disabled people have more power in their senses. And the horses are so in tune with them.”
And for Marinner’s horses, the therapy is twofold. Each horse is a rescue, and thus has a traumatic past. One horse had half of its tongue ripped out by its former owner, and another was left for dead in a 7-11 parking lot. Gaining their trust, much like the equine therapy sessions with clients, has been a matter of baby steps.
“I think they appreciate all we’ve done for them, because all we’ve shown them is love and taken all the memories of what they dealt with before away,” states Marinner. “That isn’t to say that they don’t remember, because they do. One time, one of our trainers accidentally struck a horse in the face, and it took me weeks before I could calm him down again. But they recognize us and know who we are when we come in. There’s nothing nicer than walking in and having all your horses nickering at you while you say, ‘Good morning, boys!’ Our goal is to trigger their trust, and give them a second chance at life and love.”
This coming Sunday at the annual Kiwanis Equestrian Competition for Special Athletes at the Hansom Dam Equestrian Center in Lake View Terrace, family members of some of Marinner’s clients will see them ride a horse for the very first time. Marinner is inching closer to opening up an equine therapy school in Simi Valley, as well as initiating a mobile therapy-on-wheels equine program.
All of the equipment on the ranch comes courtesy of donations, and some sponsor and even “lease” Marinner’s horses. Although the program has received financial support, Marinner says she still needs volunteers. “We’ll train anyone who’s interested!” she says.
For more information about volunteering on the ranch, visit www.laequinetherapy.org.