Shenandoah was once a television star who carried actor Lorne Greene as he portrayed Ben Cartwright, patriarch of the Cartwright family on “Bonanza.”
But now at the advanced age of 34, the 5-foot-high tan Arabian mare is playing a different role--carrying disabled children at the Fran Joswick Therapeutic Riding Center.
“She’s the Katharine Hepburn of horses,” said Cheryl Schou, the center’s director. “She has a lot of dignity and a lot of presence even though she’s old. She’s a really sweet horse.”
Shenandoah--or Shenny, as the Joswick staff calls her--is one of 13 horses at the two-acre center, which is situated in a rural area on the northern outskirts of San Juan Capistrano. The center, which opened 12 years ago, uses equestrian exercises to treat 85 mentally and physically handicapped children and adults. It is the only one of its kind in Orange County and one of about 400 nationally.
“This is not pony rides for kids,” Schou said. “To somebody observing one time, the temptation is to say, ‘Isn’t that cute? All of the little disabled children going round and round on a horse.’ But there is so much that we work on.”
The riders, who range in age from 2 to 55 years old, work with therapists and volunteers to do stretching, coordination drills and riding exercises. The tasks range from simple walking to vaulting. Each rider’s program is designed by a physical therapist.
“We have riders with cerebral palsy whose spasticity makes them so stiff they can barely move,” Schou said. “We have kids who are wheelchair-bound. But even they get some benefit from even just sitting on a horse, using muscles that they don’t normally use and giving them strength.”
The riders can accomplish things they would never even attempt in a gym or a clinic, Schou said.
“There is something about putting these people on a horse that gives them self-esteem, that makes them want to do things,” Schou said. “For one thing, horses are fun.”
Shenandoah’s television career spanned much of the Bonanza series, which ran from 1959 to 1973. She was one of two horses Greene rode on that Western, which revolved around the exploits of the Cartwright clan on the Ponderosa Ranch in Nevada. Greene died in 1987.
“It is our understanding that Greene used two horses on the series and that Shenny was used primarily for close-ups,” Schou said. “She has a very attractive head, even at this age.”
Because of her age--25 is about a horse’s average life span--Shenandoah is given younger, lighter riders.
“She is perfect for them,” Schou said. “The horses need to have an extra bit of patience. Shenny knows when she just needs to be quiet and let the rider calm down.”
The other afternoon, Shenandoah was carrying Nicole Cowen, a 6-year-old autistic girl who has been coming to the center for two years. Nicole, said her mother, Linda Cowen of Irvine, is extremely hyperactive, has a very short attention span, is uncommunicative and rarely follows instructions--except when she is on a horse.
“Riding calms her down, which is an important factor, because it then allows her to learn other skills: what’s right and left, her colors, following directions,” Cowen said. “She is doing something when there is little else she will do. She won’t play by herself and she doesn’t like toys. This is something she can do successfully and feel a sense of achievement.”
Shenandoah came to the center seven years ago. After her TV days, the horse was given to a Hemet woman who donated her to the center.
Schou said the center tried three years ago to send Shenandoah into retirement on a farm.
“We figured she’d paid her dues,” Schou said. “The farm had a pasture with grass up to her knees and she had a companion horse. But she wouldn’t eat, so after about three months we brought her back here.
“I guess she missed the kids. I think she was born to do this.”