Texas Therapeutic Riding Center
A community where horses heal
By Sonia Duggan
In a network of barns located on 50 acres on Country Club Road in far north Wylie, horses and humans have been symbiotic for 35 years.
Under the direction of owner and head trainer Kai Handt, North Texas Equestrian Center has earned a reputation as one of the premier horse facilities in the Metroplex offering boarding and horse sales, plus all levels of lessons and competitive training from beginner to advanced.
In addition to training able-bodied riders, Handt and staff train disabled students in para-equestrian dressage, a discipline that is the highest expression of horse training. He has been the U.S. Para Equestrian Dressage Chef d’Equipe/Technical Advisor since 2014.
While Paralympic training is beneficial for disabled students, Handt and trainer Shelby Nicoletti recognized a need for therapeutic sports riding after Equest, a nonprofit offering equine assisted therapies, left the Wylie area.
“We both realized there was a huge need (for equine therapy) so we decided to start this,” Nicoletti said.
June 1, 2018, NTEC became home to the Texas Therapeutic Riding Center, a nonprofit offering therapeutic sports riding for children and adults with special physical, cognitive, sensory, learning, social and/or emotional needs.
As the owner and founder, Handt brings his 40 years of experience and serves as the Paralympic coach. Nicoletti is the program director. She has over 20 years of experience and has her Horsemanship Master Instructor Certification, Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH) Advanced Instructor Certification, USEF Para Dressage Coaching Certification and Equestrian Special Olympics Coaching Certification. She is also a certified Texas Special Education teacher.
The director says she first became involved in therapeutic training in 2008 when she joined Mane Gait in McKinney. She said, “It really changed my life.”
After Mane Gait, Nicoletti worked for Equest before joining Handt at NTEC as a trainer.
While multiple barns on the property can house up to 100 horses, special horses are needed for this type of therapy and Paralympic training. Nicoletti said she made many phone calls in the beginning to individuals she knew might possibly step up to donate or lease horses for the program.
Now TxTRC has an impressive lineup of seven high caliber horses, six geldings and one mare, available for therapeutic sports riding.
“We have these fantastic horses that fit the bill in every way,” she said, We’re very blessed.”
The diverse herd has some impressive resumes; one is a world champion roping horse and one is a 3-time world champion pleasure horse.
Therapeutic riding, says Nicoletti, “requires a vast knowledge of experience to get the riders off and on horses safely, think out of the box, be safety focused, like and have a background in horses. It’s more than just pony rides.”
Before getting started in the program, interested students visit the facility for an unmounted evaluation first, then take a barn tour.
“That way we can make sure, she said, and watch them move.”
There are height weight requirements as well. “I’m a big advocate of my horses,” she said. “Our biggest expense of the program is horse care.”
Rider paperwork is required for a potential client’s doctor to fill out and clear them.
There are a few disabilities, says Nicoletti, that are considered detrimental to be riding a horse that don’t qualify such as uncontrolled seizure disorder.
“We do have a bit of a vetting process,” she said. “Then we put them on the schedule and away we go.”
She said a lot of TxTRC clientele have mental health disabilities.
Equine therapy is helpful with anxiety, depression, autism, motor skills, life skills and so much more. Nicoletti says, “It’s been really neat helping these teenagers or young adults with their anxiety disorders, learning disabilities or other emotional disorders. Working with the veterans has been really fun too.”
The director teaches lessons six days a week and has a part-time instructor and trained volunteers who help.
As part of the program, most students start almost exclusively in English (saddle) unless there’s a physical disability that requires a western saddle.
“English is more challenging to the body,” she says, “because you get better balance and there’s less leather. One veteran rides a horse that can jog and rides western. We do what it takes to make it work within safety parameters.”
They also have riders that jump, including one student who has Down syndrome.
“As long as you have the right horse component, instructor, you can really max out potential,” she said.
Because TxTRC helps physical, cognitive, and emotional challenges, Nicoletti says sometimes students are ready to do something else. In that case, para-dressage might be an option, and that’s where Handt comes in.
“Kai’s a great resource for adaptive tack and new ideas so it’s been a really good relationship,” Nicoletti said. “We can collaborate together as well because therapeutic riding is really different than para but it’s a good channel to move those athletes through if they have higher competition aspirations”.
The huge facility includes six arenas and a covered arena, so when COVID-19 isn’t preventing gatherings of large groups, riders participate in monthly shows at the facility and elsewhere.
There are many positives, says Nicoletti, of being in a facility and sharing space with five trainers, as well as borders.
“I think it’s a great learning opportunity for other people to be exposed to therapeutic riding around here, to see what we do, and see a different way of doing things,” she said. “Our riders might see someone jump really big or do dressage, so they get to see a lot more than therapeutic riding.”
Most often, students take private lessons from one to five days a week. They are grouped if they have show aspirations or they want to start riding together.
Nicoletti says a big future goal of TxTRC is financial sustainability.
“Right now, we need rider sponsorships,” she said. “Competition is a big part of our program.”
TxTRC partners with the Archie Foundation for Therapeutic Horsemanship for its Hoofbeats for Veterans Program, an 8-week intensive horsemanship program. The foundation’s partnership allows TxTRC to provide equine assisted activities and therapies for veterans and their families at no cost including equine therapy for PTSD. The program includes not only mounted lessons but extensive training in horse and barn care plus weekly equine facilitated mental health activities.
One veteran’s family, the Quintana family, went through the Archie Foundation/Hoofbeats for Veterans program and has since become fully immersed in TxTRC. In the beginning, only Jenny Quintana and her daughter were riding in the program, then one day Jenny’s husband Phillip, a Marine injured in Afghanistan, and a single amputee, came to watch them ride.
“He told me, ‘I can do that,’” Jenny said.
Since then, he’s been riding three days a week for almost two years and competes as well.
“There will be days when he doesn’t want to come if the weather’s been bad because he’s had multiple back surgeries and things like that too,” she said. “But after he comes, he’s a totally different person. It gets him out of his head. It gives him something to look forward to.”
Jenny is now a working student who serves on the board and volunteers.
“It’s been so cool. It’s changed the whole family,” Nicoletti said.
Want to check out the program? Call Shelby at 972-977-9473 or visit Txtrc.com