The moment Teacup arrived at the United Cerebral Palsy Work Inc. offices in Santa Maria, people greeted her with “oohs” and “aahs” and friendly smiles.

Teacup is a miniature horse from the Santa Ynez Valley Therapeutic Riding Program. The people she came to meet are individuals with mental and/or physical disabilities.

They anticipated Teacup’s arrival on a sunny weekday morning with eagerness, patiently waiting for the small horse to appear.

United Cerebral Palsy Work Inc. (UCP Work) provides employment opportunities for clients, either through companies that hire people with disabilities or with onsite assignments, such as assembling community shelter packets.

Currently, there are 99 people who visit UCP Work’s Santa Maria facility, according to Ronica Smith, director of Applied Abilities Programs. She estimated participants’ ages range from 18 to 65 and up, with the average person in their mid-30s.

Teacup was led off a horse trailer, parked on a side street. She was gently escorted to the rear of UCP Work’s offices, where more than a dozen participants greeted her.

The horse’s visit was extra special, Smith said, because it gave participants a chance to interact with a variety of outside professionals, in addition to petting Teacup at their will.

“Independence is a very big goal,” said Smith, noting the objective of UCP’s work program is to interact with members of the community while being paid. “You gotta be here on payday. They get very excited about their checks.”

As for Teacup’s grand entry, she said, “It’s exciting. They kind of rushed in when she arrived.

“They’re animal lovers,” said Smith, who has been with UCP Work for 17 years. “Animals are kind of like music. Everybody loves them.”

Asking questions

As one of UCP’s participants reached out to pet the horse’s mane, another asked, “How old is Teacup?”

When told the miniature horse, which stands about 4 feet from the ground, is 24 years old, a quartet of “aahs” floated above the parking area, where people were gathered behind UCP’s building.

“Is it a boy or a girl?” one participant asked, as Teacup was led inside the facility.

When someone asked what horses eat, a man, sitting at a table, replied, “Hay!”

“Very good,” said Shannon Bowman, a UCP supervisor who has been with the nonprofit organization for 10 years.

“We haven’t had Teacup here before,” Bowman said. “This is the first time she has visited our facility.”

UCP Work of Santa Maria has partnered with SYV Therapeutic Riding for several years. Once a week, UCP brings four participants to Therapeutic Riding’s location in Santa Ynez to ride and/or groom the nearly dozen horses at the equestrian center. Through grants that provide scholarships, Therapeutic Riding is able to accommodate UCP participants at reduced rates.

Ashley Newton, a Therapeutic Riding instructor and equine specialist, said the number of participants from groups like UCP varies from week to week.

“We have seven [people] for a four-week session in our current group,” Newton said, noting equine specialists like her work with a psychologist to address participants’ individualized needs. “We’re certified to work within mental health situations.”

Speaking out

Inside UCP’s Santa Maria facility, dozens of participants greeted Teacup. Some entered the large room, petted the horse and left. Others remained, their faces brightened by the presence of the relaxed animal. Expressions ranged from curious to happy, as participants patted her back and stroked her mane.

“It’s beautiful,” Steven said softly while he petted the miniature horse. “How’re you doing?”

The man turned to one of the women from Therapeutic Riding and asked, “Do you bring her to parties?”

Mary, who stood patiently next to Teacup and petted her affectionately, said, “When you’re little, you want to ride horses.”

For the women from SYV’s Therapeutic Riding Program, it’s a common refrain — many people dream of riding horses.

The Santa Ynez-based group works with school districts and senior centers throughout the Valley, as well as Lompoc and Santa Maria. In addition to bringing Teacup to schools, retirement homes and nonprofits like UCP Work, Therapeutic Riding offers programs that allow mentally and physically disabled people, veterans and their families, troubled youth and disenfranchised citizens to visit the equestrian center in Santa Ynez, where they ride a variety of horses. Participants are accompanied by at least two certified trainers, who walk alongside the horses while people ride them for self-confidence and enjoyment.

Traveling with Teacup

The traveling program is special because it gives people an opportunity to share the experience of seeing and petting a horse, albeit a miniature one.

“We’ve been taking Teacup to a few assisted living facilities, like Friendship House and Lompoc Skilled Nursing [Rehabilitation Center],” said Newton, noting seniors are often shy around Teacup.

“This is a little more interactive,” the instructor said, noting she was surprised by how relaxed Teacup appeared at UCP’s office.

For Kim Dotzler, SYV’s Therapeutic Riding Program coordinator, UCP Work is a natural fit.

“Teacup’s just really good with groups of people,” Dotzler said. “This is kind of her calling — her job.”

Still, she said the horse was especially relaxed around the UCP group.

“It kind of always surprises me how good Teacup does,” Dotzler said. “You don’t always expect a horse to go inside a strange building with all those people around them and stay so calm.”

A woman named Stephanie, wearing a Dodgers jersey, said softly, “I like the pony.”

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One of her companions agreed.

“She’s a beautiful horse,” Kris said from her wheelchair. “I love to do pet therapy. My problem is getting on the horse … actually get your legs over, because I’m in a wheelchair. So, I would need help.

“I would love to go to horse therapy,” Kris continued. “I love animals.”

Accommodating riders

With a recently installed automated lift, accommodating people in wheelchairs is not a problem, according to Newton.

“Just because they’re in a wheelchair, doesn’t mean they can’t ride,” the instructor said. “They just need a medical release.

“The lift has been life-changing,” Newton continued, noting staff previously had to physically lift people who could not climb on a horse. “It’s allowed a wide range of riders.”

Asked how she felt about the experience at UCP’s Santa Maria facility, bringing Teacup on the road for dozens of disabled people to enjoy, Newton said it was a great success.

“I thought it was extremely rewarding for these participants in the program who can’t leave, or can’t ride,” she said. “They swarmed outside to meet her … it’s nice for them to have the extra time with Teacup.”

Newton’s colleague concurred.

“I think Teacup really enjoyed it,” Dotzler said. “I think everyone liked to see her. She just brings a little extra fun to everyone’s day. Teacup likes to go out and visit.”

For UCP’s Bowman, who helped coordinate the visit with SYV Therapeutic Riding, the day was extremely rewarding.

“I think it went wonderful,” Bowman said of Teacup’s visit. “Everyone was just excited to touch and pet her.”

Bowman helps UCP participants travel to Santa Ynez and ride larger horses with assistance from Therapeutic Riding staff.

“Every time we go out there, we have a blast,” she said. “The volunteers who work there are sweet and knowledgeable.”

Thanks to Teacup, more UCP participants will likely be traveling to Santa Ynez soon to ride the horses.

“I actually had a few of our individuals, who don’t [currently] attend horse therapy, ask for applications so they can go,” Bowman reported, alluding to the woman in a wheelchair.

Thanks to Teacup, who serves as a kind of ambassador, therapeutic riding is becoming a reality for people who would otherwise never dream of riding a horse.