Mariposa Life

Debbie Croft: Horsemanship and helping riders with special needs

The unique relationship between a horse and its rider brings fulfillment in so many ways, but especially to individuals who struggle.

Shawna Dahl started riding her first horse – a Welsh pony – at age 3. She says she’s had the horse “bug” ever since.

Her work with horses helped her survive some difficult situations in her own life, and she sees the same benefit in others: Learning good horsemanship helps kids and adults who struggle to find healing.

Three years ago, a 7-year-old boy with autism came to her, running around uncontrollably and screaming. But the minute he sat on a horse he lay down backwards, and remained quiet for about 15 minutes.

“Like he wanted to soak up the magnetism from the horse,” Dahl says.

He’s now much calmer and able to verbalize. He rides independently. He uses the hands and feet exercises he’s learned. He weaves around cones, and leads the horse around by himself, and takes care of grooming – all on his own.

Some days there appeared to be no progress, but now his mom and Dahl are blown away at how changed he is. And the changes are visible at home, too.

“I’ve shed lots of tears of joy in the arena, seeing what he’s able to do now,” Dahl says.

Other students come terrified of strangers, and face a new situation without crying.

Now they’re helping other kids by letting them know they used to feel like that, too, but it will be OK.

Streaming through children today, Dahl has noticed, is an epidemic of anxiety. Kids come to her debilitated and tense, they’re not breathing, they can’t look people in the eye, they’re not thankful, they have no ambition and no work ethic.

Within the first hour Dahl can usually see where a student is emotionally, and can match him or her with the right horse. On the ranch kids find healthy boundaries and solid structure. Yes, learning to ride and handle horses can be challenging, but she combines the work with fun.

And they love her.

“I have high expectations, but nothing they can’t do or I wouldn’t do myself.”

Dahl believes horses are partners. She doesn’t use spurs, and there’s no yelling or hitting the animal. Most of the time communication is done in silence.

“Working with horses causes us to think of someone other than ourselves,” she continues. “Being in the moment for a period of time clears the head. If we bring our personal problems to the lesson, the horse will let us know.”

People come to her wanting to learn how to ride, but they leave having learned more about relationships and respect.

Learning how to work and communicate with the horse proves to be very effective in learning how to communicate with humans. Dahl sees it in “normal” people, but especially in those with special needs.

But then she laughs, “We’re all special needs.”

In order to become good at riding, the mental part must be mastered before the physical part. Dahl knows how to set riders up for success.

She’s amazed how local school kids with special needs are her top performers with the horses. And when they find success with the animals, they’re able to help others do the same.

She’s seen adults come, very balled up, overly emotional, tight, weighed down with emotional baggage. When they release it all in the arena, they leave changed. Dahl also works with women who’ve been abused or traumatized.

“We have a tremendous group of ladies who are finding healing through riding lessons and forming new friendships,” she says.

Dahl has worked with an international clinician for four years now. She praises Leslie Desmond, an internationally recognized natural horsemanship coach, for elevating the level of her training.

At her Mariposa ranch, Dahl raises and trains horses, provides boarding, offers a riding club and holds clinics for students of all ages, and gives lessons at every skill level.

Registrations are still open for Ranch Fun Days, to be held on Wednesday and Saturday mornings during the two weeks of Christmas break for school-age kids.

Learn more at or by calling 209-377-8202.

Debbie Croft writes about life in the foothill communities. Follow her on Twitter @ghostowngal or email her at