Community Profile: Ride for a Reason

Dee Stiers (right) helps lead rider Penny during her session at Silt’s Riding Institute for Disabled Equestrians.
Chelsea Independent/Post Independent

Nestled in Peach Valley at the foot of the Hogback Mountains is a place where people of all ages and walks of life become family – a place where riders ride for a reason.

Technically, the Riding Institute for Disabled Equestrians (RIDE) is a private, non-profit organization designed to provide equine-assisted activities through therapeutic programs for children and adults with physical and developmental disabilities and offers facilitated mental health activities by horses.

But for those who are part of the RIDE family, it’s a place where students, horses and volunteers are accepted for who they are. It is a place of hope, new beginnings and safety.

Dee Stiers and her husband Poke took over the institute when it was still in its infancy in 1993 after it was made by MaryLee Lebaw who was no longer able to continue running it.

Poke Stiers watches from the gate as riders have sessions in the corral at Silt’s Riding Institute for Disabled Equestrians.
Chelsea Independent/Post Independent

“I said, ‘Well, I can. I’ll take care of it for you,” Stiers said.

Stiers, a graduate of the University of Northern Colorado with a degree in special education, has been an educator for just under 50 years. With a family that had a history and knowledge of horses, Stiers knew this was something she wanted to undertake.

“It was a perfect script for me – I was thrilled,” she said.

History with horses

Dee and Poke Stiers met on the Front Range in 1966. It was a teal convertible Mustang belonging to the boy from Glenwood Springs that first caught the eye of 19-year-old Dee.

The two dated before Poke enlisted in the United States Marine Corps and served in Vietnam. They married after he returned and moved to Denver to start a family and had two daughters, Stephanie and Melanie.

While Poke served in the military, the family moved back and forth between California and Hawaii while Dee continued to teach in each location.

“When we were in Hawaii, Steph found this place called Champagne Therapy,” Stiers said. “It’s like what we do here but smaller.”

“All I wanted was to be surrounded by horses,” said Stéphanie Stiers. “I searched the stalls, I started leading (horses) and working with children with Down syndrome. This is how we were introduced to Equine Assisted Therapy.

Stephanie Stiers brings Finn up for his riding session at the Riding Institute for Disabled Riders near Silt.
Chelsea Independent/Post Independent

The family later moved to California and became heavily involved with another equine group called The Pony Club, a nationwide program that teaches riding and proper horse care.

“We’re the type that once we go in, we go in strong,” Stiers said. “And that was great because when Poke was off to Okinawa and off to the Gulf War, we would go to school and then come home and ride.”

Go home

In 1993 the Stiers family moved back to Garfield County where Dee continued teaching special education and was soon introduced to MaryLee Lebaw and the RIDE program.

A year later they moved to their ranch on Bendetti Lane north of Silt and brought the riding institute with them, where it has been ever since.

Since teaching special education locally, Stiers knew the children and their parents and was able to tell them about the therapeutic opportunities at RIDE.

“We started small and after school or during the summer,” Stiers said. “But then it started to get bigger and bigger and the more I taught in the school district, the more I knew. I knew the psychologists, I knew the kids. … I just brought them here.

In its first year, RIDE had five students, four horses and a handful of volunteer teachers. This year, the institute expects more than 250 riders and has nearly 50 volunteers who show up for Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday sessions and bi-weekly camps.

“What we liked was that the parents could come and they could get away from it all. They would sit under the apple tree or in the OK Corral and just visit other relatives and relax,” Stiers said.

“They have to deserve it”

Customers’ reasons for going to RIDE vary depending on their specific needs. Therapy sessions are designed to accommodate each person’s abilities and disabilities. Riders are required to obtain referrals from a physician and therapist prior to attending sessions.

“These are not lessons,” Stiers said. “They don’t come here to learn to ride, per se. There’s a reason they’re here.

Dee Stiers comes out of the tack room to prepare a horse for a session at the Riding Institute for Disabled Riders near Silt.
Chelsea Independent/Post Independent

After the busy summer months, area schools are taking children on outings to the RIDE, including children deemed “at risk” who have faced a variety of childhood challenges. This group of children help with household chores on the ranch and learn about the horses before they get a chance to ride.

“They have to earn it and they do,” Stiers said. “They have to show respect and follow teamwork. They are tough kids and they are in this group for a reason. But they are tough because something happened.

“You have to be flexible…these are children who can be violent. But they are so kind to these animals because they are afraid of them…it makes them humble,” Stephanie said.

A few of the at-risk children later became volunteers and helped other at-risk children with similar situations and backgrounds.

“It’s an outlet for them and a safe place,” Stephanie said.

‘They rock this place’

RIDE volunteers vary in age and background just as much as riders. Most are between the ages of 12 and 15 and are active in local 4-H groups or looking for a safe place to make friends and spend the summer.

“Our volunteers are wonderful. This is a completely different quality of volunteers. They are mature, bearing children, … and they rock this place,” Stiers said.

A group of volunteers and Dee Stiers (right) lead rider Penny during her session at Silt’s Riding Institute for Disabled Equestrians.
Chelsea Independent/Post Independent

Stiers also credits the community for being a pillar that helps make RIDE work.

“The community is completely on board with this,” she said. “We charge very little and if they can’t pay, we get scholarships.”

At a weekly lesson fee of just $17, Stiers only recently raised the price after 20 years after receiving advice to do so from RIDE’s chairman of the board. Community members and local businesses sponsor families who cannot afford the fees.

RIDE’s horses are also sponsored by community members who donate $2,000 per horse each year.

“We couldn’t do this without the community,” Stiers said.

At the end of each busy day, Stiers likes to look back and recognize what Equine Therapy is doing for each individual client, as well as the volunteers. The way children, volunteers, students and horses mix and work together is what makes RIDE a family.

“It makes my day and I like it,” Stiers said. “I wouldn’t do it any other way.”

Visual journalist Chelsea Self can be reached at 970-384-9108 or [email protected]

Clyde P. Johnson