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Meet the horses at Bellingham’s center for adaptive riding

The goal is happy, healthy horses who are not overworked

Northwest Therapeutic Riding Center founder Julia Bozzo pets 5-year-old Bruce Aug. 12 at the riding center. Bozzo opened the center in 1993 and has given hundreds of lessons to people with disabilities.
Northwest Therapeutic Riding Center founder Julia Bozzo pets 5-year-old Bruce Aug. 12 at the riding center. Bozzo opened the center in 1993 and has given hundreds of lessons to people with disabilities. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)
By Jaya Flanary Digital Editor/Designer

Bellingham’s Northwest Therapeutic Riding Center pairs people with disabilities with horses, teaching adaptive riding and horsemanship. The nonprofit takes pride in its seven happy and healthy horses — Kleng, Leo, Henry, Vincent, Bruce, Ole and Spotticus.

[ Read more: Therapeutic center empowers riders for 30 years ]

“We want the longevity,” Program Director Hilary Groh said. “It takes so much work to get them to the point where they’re in the arena doing lessons that you don’t want them to burn out.”

While lessons take up four afternoons a week, managing and operating the riding center is a more-than-full-time job.

“My day off is only six hours,” Executive Director Julia Bozzo said, laughing.

Each horse does about five lessons per week (other programs average as many as 15 per horse) and NWTRC averages well below the industry standard of working a horse no more than three hours consecutively, six hours total daily.

“Without your horse, you don’t have anything,” Bozzo said. “So we’re really big on horse care.”

photo  Spotticus, front, and Henry T. Fjord roam the back pasture of the riding center Saturday, Aug. 12. When they’re in the hilly woods, “they’re just horses and they behave like horses,” Bozzo said in regards to the herd’s playful nature. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)  

Maintaining horses is not only time-consuming, but expensive. The riding fees cover about 16% of the nonprofit’s costs, and Bozzo and Groh raise funds for the remainder.

NWTRC — one of 279 PATH (Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship) Intl. programs in the world — has all different shapes and sizes of horses “by design” with varying personalities, too.


“We look for horses that are friendly and curious,” Bozzo said. “Curiosity is one of the traits that we found is what you need for a horse.”

The seven animals learn from each other — both good and bad habits — and they love their routine, Bozzo said.

The oldest of the bunch, 32-year-old Kleng, has been at NWTRC since he was 4. While he is still doing lessons, he is not as fast as he once was and has a weight limit for riders. He is the “star of the show,” Bozzo said, referring to him winning National Therapeutic Horse of the Year in 2009 and being inducted into the Horse Stars Hall of Fame four years later.

Since Kleng is older, Bozzo introduced a new horse in May: Spotticus, who is getting used to the lay of the land and loves to play.

But their connection to people is what makes them special, said Bozzo, who was “born loving horses” and still gets excited when a horse trailer passes her on the freeway. They’re adaptable, gentle, willing to learn and smart, she said.

“[Horses] have had this connection with people forever; they’re domestic animals and they depend on us,” Bozzo said. “There’s something kind of magical about being around a big creature.” 

For more information visit nwtrc.org or call 360-966-2124. The riding center is located at 1884 Kelly Road.

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