“It’s kind of the final leg of the race here,” says Jan Vescelius, director of Therapeutic Riding, Inc. TRI wants to build a new arena where people with handicaps can ride horses year round–and more of those on their long waiting list can finally get a seat in the saddle. The project was spurred into motion when Harold and Kay Peplau, longtime friends of the nonprofit on Joy Road, donated $1 million to pay for construction of a much bigger riding facility. Then TRI board president Mike Hommel put a small item in the Washtenaw Business Review announcing the group was looking for land. In a bit of kismet, Gordon Kummer of the Lloyd and Mabel Johnson Foundation saw the notice–and soon everyone was negotiating. The upshot: TRI purchased a chunk of land on Morgan Road in Pittsfield Township that the Johnson Foundation had placed with the Legacy Land Conservancy. “The land has a conservation easement on it–it can never be developed,” explains Hommel. And the foundation was willing to let it go at what a TRI press release calls a “MUCH reduced price.”

Incorporated in 1984, TRI currently has about eighty clients, mostly children, but only a small, unheated indoor arena. Many riders have cerebral palsy, while others have less visible disorders like autism. The benefits of riding include improved physical coordination, newfound confidence, and the sheer joy of moving on a horse. While trained teachers usually lead the riders with a rope, a few ride independently–and some even jump.

But, Vescelius says, “a lot of riders take a giant step backward [over the winter] because they can’t ride in the cold.” That’s where the indoor arena comes in. TRI wants to break ground this spring, Vescelius says, but to do that it needs to complete a $2 million capital campaign by April 1. In February, the group was still $500,000 short–but if it raises another $250,000, the Johnson Foundation will match that amount.

Vescelius points out that services for many handicapped children are paid for by a parent’s medical benefits. When parents are laid off, “their children are losing some of their treatments–and in many cases, therapeutic riding is the only thing they have left. Unless their parents have a lot of money put away, we’ve become even more important in a lot of lives.”