GOSHEN — A box of tissues passed among freeholders March 27 after the board heard Heather Carr Johnson’s plea for help to sustain and grow the county Equestrian Facility Inc., 418 Route 47, possibly with county aid.
However, the weak economy would likely preclude the county assuming the 32-acre ranch under its official wing as part of a department or operated with county workers. Volunteers may prove its salvation.
Carr Johnson is president of the Cape May County Equestrian Facility, Inc., a volunteer group with federal 501(c)3 tax-exempt status. She said it shelters 12 horses, four to provide therapy rides and eight for private owners who pay for stall space.
The group gives therapeutic riding lessons to children with a variety of disabilities for $25 per half hour.
The county’s 1991 4-H queen told the board while she has a “phenomenal support system,” she believes new blood is needed to take the program to its next level. She added that while she wants to see new people assume the responsibility, she isn’t ready to close shop, but instead wants to remain “As long as I can see light at the end of the tunnel.”
“I really think that this program can grow,” Carr Johnson said, and cited two therapy programs around the nation that allow 200 riding lessons weekly for youth to benefit from riding horses.
“I would like our tiny program to be half that size. I would like to help students at the (county) Special Services School District and other districts in the county,” she added.
Carr Johnson, a county Health Department employee, who does her day job then out to the ranch, envisioned the facility taken under auspices of a county department or division. Park or zoo, she said, although she was not specific. She also thought a nine-member board, with a county department head as a member, could solidify the facility.
On screen, Carr Johnson showed the therapy horses, Needles, Montana, Rita and Daisy.
“Healing Hooves” therapeutic rides are given Thursday from 6 to 8 p.m. and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., she said. The farm is open Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
In 2006, the county-owned ranch, under Open Space and Farmland Preservation, was given a three-year lease to operate as Cape May County Equestrian Facility, Inc. for $1 a year, plus utilities.
At that time, the ranch was given a year to upgrade the facilities, formerly operated as Second Chance Ranch, and prior to that Circle T Equestrian Ranch when Open Space acquired it for $170,000 in the fall of 1995.
In 2006, the ranch was allotted two years to receive certification to offer its therapeutic riding program. Carr Johnson was president then, and retains that title. At the time of the transfer, the facility received 25 letters of support, according to then deputy county administrator Steve Hampton.
Users of the facility were, and continue to be, residents of ARC homes as well as students from the county Special Services School District.
The original lease was extended until 2014.
At the conclusion of Carr Johnson’s presentation, was projected on the overhead screen a verse, “I saw a child who couldn’t walk, sit on a horse and laugh and talk…I saw a child who could only crawl, mount a horse and sit up tall…I saw a child born into strife, take up and hold the reins of life…And that same child was heard to say, ‘Thank you, God, for showing me the way. John Anthony Davis.”
Freeholder Kristine Gabor began to shed tears. Sharing that same emotion was Vice Director M. Susan Sheppard, and Gabor passed her a box of tissues.
Composing herself, Sheppard asked if the facility was breaking even.
“We are starting to have a little, not much,” replied Carr Johnson. She said weather played a major role in ridership, since rides were not given when temperatures are under 40 degrees or over 90 degrees.
“Our numbers reflect that. We don’t charge it we cannot give lessons,” said Carr Johnson.
Sheppard asked about the number of employees Carr Johnson envisioned at the facility; one full time for day to day operations and remainder could be part-time on staggered hours to assist with lessons, she replied.
Carr Johnson said the center was presently staffed solely by volunteers. She said Barbara Ernst, director of Open Space and Farmland Preservation, annually inspects the facility.
“I really like the program,” said Director Gerald Thornton. “Heather puts her heart and soul in the program.” Finances is where he voiced concern with a “new program and employees.” He wondered if the county “picked up the maintenance,” if that would help.
Carr Johnson expressed the opinion that personnel would have to be available to provide riding lessons “during normal operating hours. I can’t be at two places at one time.”
“Could we consolidate with Atlantic County?” Sheppard asked.
No, replied Carr Johnson, since that county’s similar entity is undergoing change and has a new board. She also estimated that it lost about half its clientele. That program also included able-bodied people.
“Ours is just for the disabled,” said Carr Johnson.
Freeholder Will Morey cited some 300 pupils in the Special Services School District who might benefit. Carr Johnson said there were presently six pupils from there that ride.
“In summer, the enrollment increases because it’s easier for parents to get their children out to ride,” said Carr Johnson.
Thornton suggested Carr Johnson meet with County Parks Director Mike Laffey, Superintendent Barbara Makoski of the Special Services School District, present at the meeting due to a Board of School Estimate meeting, and county 4-H officials.
“Why don’t you meet with all those groups and see if you can come up with a recommendation,” Thornton added. “It’s a great program. I would hate like hell to see that end.”
He asked that Carr Johnson return “a month from now” meet with everyone and see if we can come up with alternatives to save the program.”
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