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“Walk on.” 


These tentative words came from above me. I was walking beside and hanging onto a leg of an eight-year-old rider who was on the back of Mustang Sally. The student had been instructed to tell this gentle horse it was time to move forward. However, on this day, the first of the spring session, the command was more of a suggestion.


The nonprofit Ride to Read program was getting off to a blustery beginning in April 2023. The start date of the seven-week session had been pushed back two weeks already due to rainy days that would not relent, making for cold temperatures, wet conditions, and a soggy arena.


Ride to Read is held at the bucolic ranch built and developed by longtime and beloved Three Rivers residents Jill and Cal Johnson and now owned for the past six years by their dear friends Cathy and John Fitzpatrick. The ranch is so beautiful, so peaceful, that to me, a first-time — first day! — volunteer with Ride to Read, I was honored just to be setting foot on this sacred land that was long ago occupied by, and still bears marks of, Yokuts, Mono, and Tübatulabal tribes people. And their children. It feels so right that this land once again is the teaching grounds of the youngest among us. 


My official position as a volunteer with Ride to Read is “Side Walker.” No, I am not a poisonous snake (sidewinder!) nor do I repair city concrete. I am a hands-on spotter who walks beside the horse but pays attention mostly to the young rider in the saddle. I work in partnership with the “Horse Leader” who guides the horse through the arena. While I watch and brace the rider, the leader keeps an eye on the horse and the surroundings. All bases are covered to keep everyone safe.


All attention is on Cathy, the founder of Ride to Read and a Certified Therapeutic Riding Instructor. She directs from the center of the arena, teaching the Ride to Read students all about compassionate horsemanship while directing riding exercises and reading challenges. Her knowledge runs deep about all things equine. She assists the students with their mounts and dismounts, steps in as needed to teach the literacy aspect of the program, organizes the volunteer schedule and communications, recruits students, plans the annual fundraising, provides horse care, and shares the home, outbuilding, and ranch chores with husband John. And she queues up a great playlist of music for all to ride and read with rhythm.


I walk beside Sally, who is a sturdy horse and has quite a history, if only she would tell it. She found her way to Cathy after being born an undomesticated mustang. As such, she is sure-footed and unflappable. She has a gentle disposition, and the student on her back looks small compared to her soaring size. Sally loves to nuzzle, and a look into her dark brown eyes reveals an intelligent, radiant soul. Along with pasture mates Odie Mae and Poco, Ride to Read students are in excellent hands, and by hands I mean hooves.


Here at Ride to Read, horses are not servants subject to human demands. They are not tools to be used and tossed aside. They are a crucial part of the team. They are indispensable family members. It’s a beautiful bond to behold, especially when it begins developing between student and mount. During the hour-and-a-half classes, students spend half their time with the horses and the last 45 minutes in the classroom. While on their horse in the arena, students have reading tasks; while in the classroom, students have horse-themed lessons.


Riding and reading blend so seamlessly that it’s obvious Cathy is onto something with Ride to Read. Recent studies have found that outdoor play is incredibly beneficial when it comes to developing young brains. Letting kids play outside can help them to do better in school, extracurricular activities, sleep, and socializing —especially if a child struggles with learning, behavior, or attention.


But riding and reading aren’t the only lessons. The students, so reserved during their first lesson, also are taught horse care, become comfortable with and converse as friends with the adult volunteers (and the horses!), and gain a saddlebag-full of confidence. During the two-month session, where students attend one day a week, there was a roping day, a trail-ride day, trotting intervals, and even a birdwatching activity as the ranch is quite a haven for those with feathers. While outdoors, the students learned to read and spell the names of the riding equipment, horse anatomy, and local flora and fauna.


It was satisfying to me to behold the growth of the students from start to finish of the Spring 2023 session. The timid student at the beginning morphed into a confident, chatty equestrian who self-assuredly asked her horse partner to…



- Sarah Elliot

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