The equine “spirit”

Vallejoan helps area kids ride horses

Posted:   03/07/2012 01:01:23 AM PST

Bobby Driscoll, right, leads Tara and 2-year-old Tiara Quinones on "Poncho" Tuesday at therapeutic horse riding program Alotta HorsePlay along Jameson Canyon Road in unincorporated Solano County. Program founder Charlotte Dougherty, center, has designed the program for Vallejo children with special needs and considered "at risk." (Jessica A. York/Times-Herald)

When it comes to realizing her dream of helping children such as 2-year-old Tiara Quinones, native Vallejoan Charlotte Dougherty is looking to her horses to hurdle any barrier.

Dougherty has more than four decades’ experience riding horses, and has spent the last year building a small horse therapeutic riding program called Alotta HorsePlay. She’s aiming to keep its lesson costs at a minimum — even inviting bartering at times.

To help Vallejo kids like Tiara, Dougherty will soon launch a partner program, SpiritHorse Therapeutic Riding Center of the San Francisco Bay Area. It is one of some 65 affiliates of the original Texas-based SpiritHorse program. The affiliation will allow Dougherty to more easily apply for outside grant funding, and could help her reach her goal of teaching 100 “at-risk” and disabled students a week, for no cost, by 2013. Already benefiting from Dougherty’s efforts is Tiara, who is happy just learning to balance on “Poncho’s” back while gripping the fingers of nearby loving hands.

Tiara, one of Dougherty’s handful of students, not only smiled and laughed during a recent ride, but uttered a couple of “yays” with her mom, Tara Quinones, riding behind her.

Tiara was born three months premature. She has since been diagnosed with cerebral palsy and periventricular leukomalacia, or PVL for short, and sometimes suffers from seizures. Since beginning lessons with Dougherty’s nonprofit program, Tiara has started sitting up more, and even has pulled her toes up to her mouth, her mom said.

“People are like, ‘Why are you so excited about that, my baby did that in six months.’ Well, that’s exactly why. Because she’s 29 months and now doing it,” Quinones explained. “Honestly, I’ve seen a lot more improvement (with Dougherty) than I’ve seen through any of (Tiara’s other) three therapists.”

Charles Johnson, 7, takes his first horse riding lesson on "Nikki" with Alotta HorsePlay. The Vallejo boy is learning to balance on the horse using only his legs. (Jessica A. York/Times-Herald)

Riding a horse, in this case out at an 80-acre ranch off Jameson Canyon Road in unincorporated Solano County, is one of the few times Tiara’s limbs relax from their natural inclination to curl inward, her mom said.

“Horses are very therapeutic. When it comes to disabled children, the way a horse moves, their body, is the closest thing to a human walk,” said Dougherty, a certified equine health care instructor, in a recent interview.

“Say a child can’t walk. And they’re on a horse, the way the horse moves, it’s actually giving them the same sensation as walking, and strengthening their core and their legs.”

As she awaits final approval for Spirit Horse San Francisco, Dougherty said she has benefited greatly from the support of her students and friends — including affordable rent at her main locale at the Jameson Canyon Ranch.

“I charge $35 per lesson now, and that’s just to try to help me pay for the feed for the horses,” Dougherty said. “The program is aimed at Vallejo (because) it’s so needed. The kids are on the streets. There are bad influences.

“I want to reach out to parents who can’t afford (other) programs… I wanted to think big and do this big.”

Another of Dougherty’s students, 17-year-old Erin Unger, began taking lessons in October, with little to no prior experience with horses. As a cheerleader, swimmer and more, Unger said she finds her free time for horse riding limited, but she and her mother agreed that what time she has spent practicing has been beneficial.

Recently, Unger, a St. Patricks-St. Vincent High School senior with plans to attend Oklahoma State University, wedged compacted manure out of mare “Nikki’s” horse shoed-feet, like she does after every lesson.

Dougherty reminded Unger in what must be a common refrain, “At least horses only eat hay — it’s grass.”

Unger, seemingly unaffected by the mucking duty, explained that her self-confidence has grown, noting that giving horses commands requires an assertive personality.

“You learn a lot. You learn about patience, and control, and good posture and balance, definitely,” Unger said.

For more information on Alotta HorsePlay and SpiritHorse Therapeutic Riding Center of the San Francisco Bay Area, call (707) 720-6360 or e-mail

Contact staff writer Jessica A. York at (707) 553-6834 or

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