“Finding The Shea Center was such a blessing for us and for Tyler. He’s made so much progress, they’re so incredibly special here,” says Jody, 7-year-old Tyler's mom, of The Shea Center.


Tyler is your typical exuberant 7-year-old boy. This morning he’s giddy, lit up with excitement for his impending time in the arena atop his favorite mount. Save the wheelchair and automated speaking device that allows Tyler to communicate, and what you have is a normal young boy whose brilliance and joy are entirely infectious. He’s not handicapped. Here, they refer to Tyler’s challenges as ‘differently abled.’ He’s unquestionably capable of stealing your heart the moment you meet him, and there are thousands more that pass through these barns and arenas each year just like him. Each have their own ‘different abilities,’ each have a deeply-personal goal, and all are impacted by the tremendously special work happening on the grounds of The J.F. Shea Therapeutic Riding Center.

It’s a warm morning at The Shea Center in San Juan Capistrano, California. It’ll be hot today, but it doesn’t seem to bother the already bustling group of riders making their way to the various barns and arenas that cover the manicured eight-acre property. Tyler is amongst this group, being recently carried by his mother, Jody, from his place in the car to a specially-equipped wheelchair, then to the main covered arena. As his team brings his horse around, Jody, and Tyler’s younger sister, Cassidy, wait with joy in their eyes as The Shea Center physical therapists and volunteers go to work. Tyler is lifted from his chair and carried up the steps of a large mounting block, placed carefully astride a custom saddle and surrounded by his side-walkers. These aren’t simply volunteers that arrive ready to pour their heart into the The Shea Center students. Each volunteer completes a rigorous training program in both horsemanship and the critically important finite details of working with ‘differently abled’ riders of varying physical abilities. Tyler’s team clearly loves this little boy and relishes in every small victory he makes by way of his equine therapy.

The Shea Center Physical Therapist Susan Conroy, left, works with 7-year-old Tyler and one of Tyler's side-walkers.

“In a 30-minute treatment session, we can get 3,000 repetitions of movement with the horse. There’s no other tool that can provide that kind of movement.”

Susan ConroyThe Shea Center Physical Therapist

For Tyler's family, this is a place of refuge. Jody, her husband Derek and little Cassidy consider this hallowed ground. “In the beginning, when you discover that there’s something out of the norm with your child’s health, you experience quite a bit of grief. In a way it’s the realization that they won’t have the life you imagined,” says Jody, looking back on Tyler’s diagnosis with Miller-Dieker Syndrome, a rare genetic abnormality affecting 1 in 100,000 live births in the United States. “Eventually the grief subsides, and we’re to the point now where we wouldn’t change him if we could. Finding The Shea Center was such a blessing for us and for Tyler. He’s made so much progress, they’re so incredibly special here.”

As Jody speaks, Tyler rides, constantly challenged by his physical therapist, Susan, and lovingly protected by his team of side-walkers. Susan pushes Tyler, but he’ll never know the importance of her lessons. To him, this is freedom, fun and play. To his team, it’s critical time that has laid the ground work for significant improvements in Tyler’s form and function. “He just recently reached the goal of being able to hold his head upright for forty seconds while riding,” says Jody with pride in her voice. “That was a pretty big step for him. He’s also working on his core muscles and the ability to hold himself up, which will be a huge step toward more independence for him.” These may seem like small steps, but to the team at The Shea Center, and Tyler’s family in particular, they are major milestones that improve the quality of Tyler’s life.

A Shea Center physical therapist works with Tyler.
“It’s just a joyful, busy, purpose-driven place serving the ‘differently abled’ community. Every volunteer and staff member is here for the right reasons.”
Dana Butler-Moburg, Executive Director, The Shea Center for Therapeutic Riding

A New Way of Thinking

For 40 years, The Shea Center has operated with the goal of changing lives through the healing powers of equine-assisted activities. The staff are thinkers, dreamers and highly-educated and driven professionals. In addition to their heart and boundless energy is a staff team that holds themselves to a higher standard. Lead by Dana Butler-Moburg for a tenure of over 20 years, The Shea Center welcomes between 260 and 300 students per week, with over 850 specially-trained volunteers per year, all under the direction of accomplished physical therapists and support staff. “Think of The Shea Center as a big therapy clinic on eight acres,” explains Butler-Moburg. “We offer physical, occupational and speech therapy, and we’re here to make you more able, more independent and to help you thrive.” It’s a mission she and her team take seriously, working hard to not only offer state-of-the-art therapy programs but also to create a tranquil and calming setting in which to facilitate healing. “This is an amazing environment,” she says. “It’s just a joyful, busy, purpose-driven place serving the ‘differently-abled’ community. Every volunteer and staff member is here for the right reasons, and they give so much of themselves.”

It’s that team that has taken The Shea Center from its small beginnings to the sophisticated operation it is today. “We empower wonderful people to do great work for our clients,” says Butler-Moburg, “and that is part of the success of this place. We look at every single person who comes to us and offers themselves and we say, ‘what do you bring to the table? What time, treasure and talent do you have to contribute?’ Because this is who we are serving, here’s how we are serving them and if you would like to be a part of this mission, we would love to have you.” It’s that empowerment that has bonded teams of side-walkers with their respective students, forming lasting relationships that go far in building students’ trust in the horses and confidence in themselves.

  • Shea Center Therapy Horses

    The Shea Center has committed itself to building a performance-based roster of exceptionally-talented horses with just the right temperament for the work they do.

  • Dr. Markel at Shea Center

    Dr. Richard Markell, left, has been treating The Shea Center horses for 18 years, and Executive Director Dana Butler-Moburg has been with Shea for over twenty years.

One shining example is Shea student and adult rider, Kathy, who lives with Multiple Sclerosis and has seen marked improvements since starting with her team at The Shea Center. “I shouldn't say this in front of my instructor, Shari,” says Kathy, “but our team has come so far that we really don't need an instructor,” she laughs. She’s referring to her team of side-walkers that have grown to be close friends. They were awarded the distinction of ‘All-Star Team’ at The Shea Center’s annual meeting and volunteer celebration, and they proudly wear their matching shirts as they expertly guide Kathy and her mount, Stroud, around the arena. “They know all of my stretches, we have really gotten our routine down since we’ve been together so long.”

The Shea Center, quite simply, makes you want to give. It’s an environment where children and adults alike often take their first steps, utter their first words, build confidence and learn valuable life skills that shape them for their futures. The staff is dedicated, fiercely protective of their students and entirely aware of what their contribution means to the families they serve. They’re changing lives, but to them, they’re the ones that benefit most. “Every single role here makes the lives our clients, families and horses better,” says Butler-Moburg. “The people here take a lot of pride in being a part of this special thing we do, and each of them has a loving focus and dedication that comes with a lot of training, carefully designed procedures and clear expectations.”

Kathy, who lives with Multiple Sclerosis, has seen marked improvements since starting with her team at The Shea Center. Her team of side-walkers have grown to be close friends.

With a barn of nearly 40, The Shea Center is equipped with multiple breeds, sizes and backgrounds.

The Healing Power of Horses

Just as valuable as the immensely-talented team of volunteers and instructors at The Shea Center is the cornerstone of the program, the horses. With a barn of nearly 40, The Shea Center is equipped with multiple breeds, sizes and backgrounds. Some were beloved trail horses, others competed in a wide range of disciplines from dressage to cutting, and yet others were family ponies. All, however, passed a rigorous set of criteria to be here and to have the privilege of carrying the special group of students they serve.

“We take people with special needs, and we put them on a flight animal, then we want this flight animal to react in non-flight ways,” says Butler-Moburg, recognizing the gravity of selecting the right animals for the job at hand. “Our industry is evolving in that we don't take just any horse anymore. We don't take the backyard horse, or unsound horse, or horse of advanced age. It doesn’t serve our clients.” The Shea Center instead has committed itself to building a performance-based roster of exceptionally-talented horses with just the right temperament for the work they do. “We are looking at these horses as elite athletes. They have their own exercise programs, they have to work and have a big, strong back and be fit and healthy,” explains Butler-Moburg. “They are all ridden through a dressage program, so they are worked through their bodies and learn to use all their muscles comfortably through an ongoing training program lead by our clinician-in-residence, a USDF Gold Medal dressage trainer with 30 years of experience.”

It’s fascinating to watch the long line of horses in cross ties, waiting to go to work. In their stalls and paddocks, they’re your typical horses, but when in the arena carrying a student, they’re focused professionals. “There is a level of intelligence and empathy there,” says Butler-Moburg with admiration. “They have a heart for the work they do just like an international competition horse has a heart for what they are doing. At the end of the day, they choose this work.”

With an exceptionally-qualified team, Butler-Moburg has worked hard to elevate the program at The Shea Center to be amongst the most elite equine assisted therapy offerings available. A horse person since childhood, she’s well aware of the impact horses can have on each life they touch, particularly those of the ‘differently abled.’ “I think my involvement with horses has made me a better person,” she says plainly. “Horses for me as a child represented independence and freedom, and their intelligence and intuitiveness really spoke to me. It’s funny that it still does even after all of these years.” She’s convinced that the remarkable quality of volunteers at The Shea Center is a direct product of the equestrian environment. “You know, each of us that comes here to Shea is called to be here,” she says. “This is a place where we choose to be, and for many of us, it’s the call of wanting to serve with these magnificent animals. They enhance our lives in ways we can't even begin to understand. Intellectually, we understand the benefits they provide for our clients, but this is a place for people who love the horse and love what we can do for our clients with disabilities through that partnership with the horse.”

Advanced Equine Therapy

While horses may be excellent therapy for the soul, they also deliver medically-proven results by way of their unique movement and ability to engage patients. At The Shea Center, the ultimate goal of the program is to build optimal independence through equine-assisted therapies, using the unique talents of the horse. A member of the highly-specialized team of physical therapists that executes to that goal is Susan Conroy, PT, a dedicated advocate for equestrian-based programs. Center team and dedicated advocate for equestrian-based programs. “The horse impacts three primary systems,” she explains. “First is the neuromuscular system. In a 30-minute treatment session, we can get 3,000 repetitions of movement with the horse. There’s no other tool that can provide that kind of movement. It’s that symmetrical rhythmic movement that assists students in first gaining strength and balance from changes in their brain. It’s that repetitive movement that causes those changes.”

Past the neuromuscular system, The Shea Center program also focuses on the sensory system. “Imagine a child with autism,” says Susan. “They are often hyper-responsive; they can't stand crowds or noise. When we put them on a nice, rhythmic horse, that relaxing movement can impact their sensory system, so they begin to slowly take in more sights, smells and sounds. The barn is a really rich environment for that,” she says of their peaceful but busy setting.

The last of the three systems impacted most by equine therapy is the cognitive emotional system. “Imagine you’re a typical rider, out there riding, living your life, having a great time and suddenly you have a stroke,” Susan illustrates. “You wake up in the hospital, you can't walk, you can’t talk and you sometimes can't even feed yourself. The first part of that recovery is in the hospital, and it’s all about illness. A lot of our clients come here, and they tell us that being at The Shea Center is where it changed for them. They’ll say, ‘I stopped being a sick patient, and I started seeing what I can do.’ That component, that emotional healing of the mind, is vitally important for a client’s success.” Through the crucial role of the horses, The Shea Center team is seeing patients transform regularly, regaining vital life skills and, equally important, a dramatic improvement in confidence and sense of self.

It is as a product of these milestones that The Shea Center established and continues to nurture a thriving veteran’s program to support both physically and emotionally wounded service members. It’s a program held dear by the volunteers and staff members, who have dedicated so much of themselves to giving back. Done in partnership with mental health professionals from the local VA outpatient therapy clinic for those injured in combat, those individuals with PTSD acquired in combat experience a specially-designed program to help them integrate and de-escalate from the extraordinary demands of combat.

Susan explains, “they may look to the outsider as if they can ride anywhere, but they really need the special support here at The Shea Center. It is incredibly empowering to these individuals because suddenly they are taking care of something else. They are in charge of it. They work with one of our instructors, and they learn how their body language, cues and even energy and approach impacts the horse.” The Shea Center team does the equine learning side of the experience, then mental health professionals, who are themselves veterans, facilitate the emotional processing of their experiences with the horse. This practice is particularly beneficial for veterans relearning to integrate into daily life after living in a war zone. “If you imagine being on high alert during battle, then imagine that you can't be on high alert at Starbucks,” says Susan. “The way the veteran’s body language impacts the horse is a really valuable learning experience for these men and women. We start with a defined goal, considering how veterans tend to be very goal oriented. They learn quickly that horses live in the moment. To a horse, what happened a minute ago didn't happen now. If a horse startles or spooks one of the great things for the veterans to learn is ‘ok, that moment is gone, now we are onto the next moment.’ They can learn to let go of that fear and anxiety.”

“There are 66,000+ people affected by therapeutic equestrian programs nationwide. That means in your community — large or small — there could be a therapeutic equestrian program. Reach out, engage and participate.”
Dana Butler-Moburg, Executive Director, The Shea Center

The Gift of Veterinary Medicine

Amongst the greatest treasures of The Shea Center is the man that has cared for these vitally-important horses for almost two decades. Dr. Richard Markell is truly loved here, as he has been for 18 years, nearly half of The Shea Center’s long history. “I came here, and they had ten horses and some pipe corrals and pens,” remembers Dr. Markell. “I was starting my practice, and I didn’t have a lot of money, but I thought the work at Shea was really important. I said to them, ‘I’d like to take care of your ten horses for free for the rest of your life because this is so important.’ It really felt great because I saw such promise in the work they were doing.”

Little did he know that the program’s modest facility and roster of ten horses would eventually grow to include nearly 30 program horses and much more expansive grounds. “I kept with the deal,” he says laughing, “and it’s remarkable to not only see how the program has grown but the sophistication of the work they do. It constantly amazes me what I see here.”

Dr. Markell is a well-recognized name in veterinary medicine — a product of equal parts infectious personality and immense talent in his field. His practice, Ranch and Coast Equine, cares for some of the most accomplished equine athletes in the country. Dr. Markell is a member of the elite team of veterinarians that cares for the United States Olympic Show Jumping Team’s horses both domestically and during international competition. Life on the international show jumping trail may be exciting, but it’s his work at The Shea Center that is his greatest source of professional pride. “I rush in every Wednesday, I’m always late, I’m always over-scheduled, I’m always stressed out, the phone is ringing, there are other clients, and every time I walk in here, it’s almost like I’m walking into a zen garden,” he says smiling but completely serious. “I just go ‘ahhhhh.’ All of that stress goes away because I know that being part of Shea — compared to every horse that’s here, every rider, every volunteer, every staff member — I’m just a little part of it. I get to be here, and I’m grateful to be able to contribute in my small way. I’m so proud of that and so appreciative.”

Boog is an 18-year-old Amish pony and loves inspiring kids at J. F. Shea Therapeutic Riding Center,
located in San Juan Capistrano, California.

Reach Out, Engage & Participate

Would you like to find a therapeutic riding program near you?
Visit www.PathIntl.org to find a center. Volunteer or give a gift of your time or resources.

The J.F. Shea Therapeutic Riding Centerwww.sheacenter.org | 26284 Oso Road, San Juan Capistrano, CA 92675 | (949) 240-8441

Together with Dana Butler-Moburg and the staff, it was Dr. Markell who established the criteria by which they judge all potential horse candidates. “We’ve developed a whole trial system, but it starts with the notion that you want employees that want to work at your company. If you have people that love their job, they’re going to be really good at their job. It’s the same thing with these horses. We select for a herd population that wants to be here. Ironically, it’s the same for the elite athletes I work on. Those horses love doing their ‘jobs.’ If they didn’t love doing what they do, they wouldn’t be so good at it.”

Dr. Markell has the highest respect for the staff, volunteers, students and families at The Shea Center. “Eighteen years ago, he said, ‘I’m going to take care of these horses,’ ” remembers Butler-Moburg. “It allowed us to take resources that would go toward our horse care and instead grow the program, fund more riders to be here and offer more financial aid.”

Beyond the financial burden that Dr. Markell’s work has alleviated is the simple fact that The Shea Center horses receive some of the finest and most consistent veterinary care available. “Every Wednesday for the last 18 years, Richard Markell has shown up at Shea. He treats our horses just like his elite equine athlete clients. He’s just as focused on our horses’ well-being and what they need in their work. That kind of gift is so impactful everywhere,” says Butler-Moburg. “Obviously, the horses are happy and healthy, but think of the ripple effect. The child who considers that ‘their horse’ is waiting for them each week and the bond that’s developed. And the family that goes home and talks about ‘their horse.’ Whether he realizes it or not, in a very real way Richard has ownership of the thousands of lives that come here and are affected by his long-term commitment. He’s an extraordinary man and an extraordinary veterinarian.”

To Dr. Markell however, he sees himself as the beneficiary. “Just knowing that The Shea Center allows me to be a part of this, I’m not giving anything, I'm getting everything,” he says. “What this has done for me is immeasurable.” It’s his love for horses and their ability to heal, coupled with the special work being done at The Shea Center, that reminds him of why he chose his profession. “I’m so proud to be a veterinarian,” he says plainly. “I happen to be one of the lucky ones to have this opportunity.”

Dr. Richard Markell treats the nearly 40 Shea Center horses every Wednesday and has for the past 18 years.
“When I see the work that the horses do (at The Shea Center), I admire them. I look at these horses and think, ‘there’s so much you can do that I can’t.’ I feel really fortunate to be able to take care of them.”
Dr. Richard Markell, Veterinarian, The J.F. Shea Therapeutic Riding Center

Maintaining A Valuable Asset

The horses at The Shea Center represent not just a vehicle for astounding medical and emotional breakthroughs but a companionship and source of pure joy for the thousands of riders they assist each year. The impact of these equine-assisted programs is both far-reaching and life-changing. “We are not only chartered to improve the lives of people with disabilities through therapeutic equestrian programs,” says Butler-Moburg, “but we are also equally responsible for the health and well-being of these wonderful horses. Their health and ongoing care is vital for their comfort, our riders’ success and careful stewardship of donor investments in our program.”

In some ways, Dr. Richard Markell approaches the care of The Shea Center horses in the same way he sees his role with his high-level international clients. “My job — just as with my sport horse practice — is not to be needed. That’s my goal,” he says in all seriousness. When he first began his relationship with The Shea Center over 18 years ago, he had a recalibration of sorts. An orthopedic specialist accustomed to the sport horse world, he studied the unique requirements of the therapy horses and how his strategy would need to be adjusted to provide them with optimal care. “These are working animals. And what changed for me as a doctor was understanding more of the physical requirements of these horses. These horses need to be fit, healthy and be able to carry an asymmetrical rider. They need to have their backs treated when they get sore, they need to be on a great nutritional program, they need to have saddles that fit them properly. These are all things that allow these horses to do their jobs. I had no idea there was such a physical requirement.”

The Shea Center welcomes between 260 and 300 students per week

Each year, over 850 specially-trained volunteers help at The Shea Center

Acres this clinic occupies in San Juan Capistrano, California

Years Dr. Richard Markell has been caring for horses at The Shea Center

One key improvement in the care of the Shea horses was a shift in thinking when it came to nutrition. With Dr. Markell’s guidance, The Shea Center staff redesigned a once-complicated feeding program. “When I started with The Shea Center, it was a group of volunteers, with everyone having their own idea of what to feed the horses. Some of it was good and some of it wasn’t. I remember opening the feed cabinet, and every horse was on something different. They weren’t getting the right nutritional products, and most of them were overfed. Those horses were on six or seven different supplements plus hay and water. We had horses that were overweight, underweight, metabolic, you name it. We had medical issues that were significantly affected positively or negatively by nutrition.”

To revamp The Shea Center nutrition program, Dr. Markell visited several of the high-end sport horse barns that he served, observing the horses that looked and performed the best, then studied their nutritional program. He found they all had one thing in common, Platinum Performance. “That’s when I came to know Platinum and see that nutrition plays a significant role. What you put in is what you get out.” He applied the same feed and supplement principals used in his high-level sport horse clients to the horses at The Shea Center and saw a marked improvement in their condition, attitude, performance and longevity. “When it came to the Shea horses, I wanted them to get the best care possible, and that’s when I looked to Platinum. What I found interesting about it is that it’s what worked for my elite-level, international horses, and now it’s what also works for the therapy horses. It became clear to me, it was so simple. You wouldn’t want to use contaminated gas in your car, you would wreck your engine and get potentially-irreversible damage. It’s the same thing with horses and the impact nutrition has on their bodies.”

The veterinary community, much like human medicine, is shifting its thinking to focus a tremendous amount of energy and resources on prevention, and the idea of promoting and protecting health rather than simply treating with medicine. “We want to get medicine to the point where we’re treating a cut or we’re treating an orthopedic disease, but we want to take out the preventable diseases,” says Dr. Markell. He’ll be the first to tell you that not only does that approach make for healthier horses, it makes for greater value. “What we find with the Shea horses and what I find with my international horses is the value of what we put into them in the long run is well worth it. Whether we’re treating less disease, managing an existing problem more effectively through better nutrition or we need less injections.”

To the riders and volunteers at The Shea Center, they see the outward result of Dr. Markell’s dedicated veterinary work and the exceptional exercise and nutrition programs that have been put into place. “If you line up an arena full of our horses, you won’t know who the 32-year-old is or who the 9-year-old is,” says Butler-Moburg proudly. It’s true, the horses at The Shea Center are of varying breeds, ages and backgrounds, but you’ll be challenged to find a barn filled with 30 better looking, healthier horses anywhere.

“A sound horse and a healthy horse is a safe horse and an effective horse,” says physical therapist at The Shea Center. Susan Conroy. Dr. Markell agrees, pointing to the significant impact that each horse can have. “The reach of these programs and these horses is greater than one could imagine. Some of the very visible results include the person who can now walk or had a breakthrough in their ability to communicate, or is emotionally more stable, comfortable and happier because of these equine-assisted therapies. But then when you consider how many lives are affected by that one horse and one rider, it’s absolutely remarkable.”

“A sound horse and a healthy horse is a safe horse and an effective horse.”
Susan Conroy, Physical Therapist, The Shea Center

What The Future Holds

With a long past, decades of hard work and success behind them, it’s the future that excites the team at The Shea Center. “The future looks like gratitude, independence and joy,” says Butler-Moburg. “There’s good work happening here.”

The product of that good work is seen in the progress and real-life improvements made by students. To Tyler’s mom Jody, there’s no possible way to quantify what The Shea Center has meant to their family. “Tyler has brought pure joy to our lives. There is a certain depth and fullness to our life because of his extra needs. It’s unexplainable unless you experience it. What The Shea Center has done to improve Tyler’s life and happiness adds so much to our entire family.”

Much of Tyler’s progress has come from lessons learned atop a horse, under the covered arena in the serene environment of The Shea Center. He’s a living example of the heart and immense try that horses bring to their invaluable work. “I can’t imagine a world without horses,” says Dr. Markell. “When I see the work that the horses do here, I admire them. I look at these horses and think, ‘there’s so much you can do that I can’t.’ I feel really fortunate to be able to take care of them.”

The Shea Center is a well-run program with thoroughly trained staff and volunteers, all with a heart to serve and immense dedication to the clients whose lives they impact. Their program is supported by generous donors who have seen the quality of work firsthand and make it possible for these life-changing equine activities to continue. There’s unquestionably a need for The Shea Center’s work, as Dana Butler-Moburg points out. “There’s not going to be any shortage of people with disabilities. We’ll have no shortage of clients. That means we need to be here,” she says. “At the end of the day what Shea advocates is to be part of making your community better. Your time, treasure and talent has the ability to profoundly change the lives of people you don’t even know and may never meet. It’s good for your soul, it’s good for your community’s soul.”

It’s the soul in this work that has kept Dr. Markell coming back every Wednesday for nearly two decades. “I’ve had the good fortune to work with incredibly talented horses. But to be able to work with The Shea Center and be around so many remarkable professionals here — these are people who are really dedicating their lives to doing the right thing, being good citizens, being good people and making the world a better place. I feel so fortunate to have been given this opportunity.”

Jessie Bengoa
  • by Jessie Bengoa, Platinum Performance®

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