Equine TLC relocates with hopes to expand services
By Tim Putnam
The gait of a horse is similar to that of a human's.
It's this well-researched similarity that Gail Pennestri, program director for Equine Therapeutic Learning Center (TLC), points to as a reason for the success of the therapeutic use of horses.
"That helps with the physical side of it," said Pennestri, a Liberty Lake resident. "For many of the riders who are building up their core muscles or working on their walking gait, the synapses in their brain are being trained even though they aren't physically using their legs; that rhythm of the horse is helping them process that."
Equine TLC, which Pennestri launched in 2003, uses therapeutic horse riding and equine-assisted activities to help clients with physical, emotional, functional and cognitive needs. The organization's clients, ranging in age from 3 to 73, face a range of issues such as autism, sexual abuse and ADHD.
A few of Pennestri's younger autistic clients actually said their first words while riding, she said.
"Even if it's just ‘good boy' or ‘walk on,' just to see them be able to communicate and make those connections, it's amazing," said Pennestri, recalling the children were about 5 years old at the time. "I saw the expressions on the parents' faces when they were getting teary-eyed. That's completely rewarding."
Riding also builds self-esteem and empowers riders as they control a 1,000-pound animal, Pennestri said.
One client's mother told Pennestri that her son said, "I feel like the person God wants me to be when I'm on that horse."
Lessons are $15 for a half hour and $25 for an hour. But that covers less than half the program's costs. The rest is made up by fundraising efforts.
In addition to individual donations and corporate sponsors, the upcoming Denim and Diamonds event, to be held 5:30 p.m. on April 26, is the organization's primary fundraiser to cover roughly $20,000 a year in operating costs. Last year's event raised about $23,000, Fundraiser Chairperson Sara Gile said.
Having sold out the last two years, the event moved to the Best Western Coeur d'Alene Inn. Gile said the change allows them to sell 300 tickets to the event, about double the amount of tickets from last year.
"It also raises awareness for what Equine TLC does," Gile said. "The more community members who know about it, the more interest that is sparked by it."
The emcee for the night is KHQ's Kalae Chock, and the evening includes dinner, dancing, silent and lives auctions and concludes with a diamond raffle. Items for bid, such as local spa packages, a trip to Disneyland and the diamond, are all donated by the local business community.
When Equine TLC was founded in 2003, the nonprofit worked with seven to eight riders per week. Now 11 years later, Equine TLC works with up to 50 riders per week during its peak summer months.
As a result of the growth, Equine TLC is in the process of moving to a new facility on Henry Road in Liberty Lake from its family-owned facilities in Post Falls.
"We've made quite a bit of progress on the property," said Pennestri about the new facility, including recently completing the outdoor arena and horse shelters. "We're excited to start for sure our summer and possibly our spring lessons over at the new facility."
One key part of the planning at Equine TLC's Henry Road facility is a new indoor arena in order to provide year-round lessons.
"Right now we don't have any lessons during the winter," Pennestri said. "Once we have the indoor facility, even if it's cold, if we're protected from the rain and snow we can bundle up and do lessons most of the year."
The proposed indoor facility would be nearly 10,000 square feet and would include a 120-foot-by-60-foot riding area with five 12-foot-by-12-foot stalls on each side.
To pay for the facility, Equine TLC has launched the "Raise the Roof" campaign with a goal of raising about $100,000, Pennestri said.
Up until about a year and a half ago, Pennestri, along with a solid group of volunteers, had been the only instructor. Today the organization has one other certified instructor on staff and is adding a third.
Pennestri's heart for the disabled can be traced back to her brother-in-law, who has Down syndrome. As a lifelong rider, Pennestri combined these two passions with Assisted Activities and Therapies (EAAT). When Pennestri lived in California, she was able to work with a program called HELP - Handicapped Equestrian Learning Program.
HELP's founder had passed away, with the program was being carried on in her memory by her husband.
"One of the neat opportunities about that was I had the opportunity to kind of almost run that program," Pennestri said.
After she and her husband Scott moved to Spokane, she served as the area director for the Special Olympics equestrian program.
"At that time, we had a group of riders who loved it," said Pennestri, who served in that role until the funding ran out for the event. "And (for) some of them, it was the only activity that they did."
With the loss of funding for the Special Olympics program, Pennestri looked into forming a nonprofit and got her certification as a therapeutic riding instructor from the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH).
"We're not looking to grow huge," said Pennestri of her vision for the organization. "At the same time, I know there are so many individuals who could benefit from it; I hate turning them away."
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Denim & Diamonds
The fifth-annual Denim & Diamonds fundraiser is 5:30 p.m. April 26 at the Best Western Coeur d'Alene Inn. The blue jean affair raises awareness and funds to cover Equine TLC's yearly expenses. It features dinner, dancing, silent and live auctions and concludes with a diamond raffle.
Tickets for the event are $65 per person, or $450 for a table of eight; they're available at www.equinetlc.org. For more information, to become an event sponsor or to donate auction items or services, contact Sara Gile at email@example.com or 496-9499.
Want to help Raise the Roof?
Volunteers and potential donors can learn more about Equine TLC's plans for a future indoor arena at 801 S. Henry Road at www.equinetlc.org, or by calling 891-2027.
The organization also is seeking a marketing volunteer with fundraising experience.