What happens when a show horse goes blind and can no longer compete? Most horses would be retired, put out to pasture, and written off as unusable. Not so for one special Appaloosa gelding.
Zipped in Black Magic, or “Zip”, was given a second chance and a second career, and has become one of the most beloved therapy horses in the country. Zip is transforming the lives of therapy students and helping them to connect to themselves and the world around them with his gentle and calm spirit.
“It brings me tears thinking about the students he has helped here,” said Marcy Laver, Director of All Riders Up, the therapy program in Garnet Valley, Pennsylvania, where Zip resides. “He has had such a marvelous life helping people. It’s more than we could ask for, for sure.”
The 19-year-old gelding had lived his entire life as a show horse and schoolmaster until moon blindness took his sight in both eyes. It was clear that he would no longer be suitable for competition, so his former owners contacted numerous therapeutic riding facilities in an effort to offer him a second career. All Riders Up stepped up to the plate and took a chance on developing a blind horse into a therapy horse. Since they brought him on, Zip has transitioned seamlessly to his new life.
“He works so well in the program because he is very trusting. I guess because he is blind, he depends on other people and on other horses so much,” Marcy explained. “He is super trusting of those who are handling him.” His good-natured, even temperament calms even the most nervous rider and he never spooks or startles. Zip has become one of the program’s most reliable partners for their students.
Zip’s trusting nature and the hard work at All Riders Up hasn’t gone unnoticed. Just a few years after his debut as a therapy horse, Zip was crowned the PNHS Foundation’s 2017 Therapy Horse of the Year.
“The PNHS Foundation was founded in 1999 and our mission is to fund and support therapeutic riding programs and equine rescue programs,” said PNHS Executive Director, Susie Webb. Every year, therapeutic riding and equine rescue programs apply for grants from the foundation. “They need help and support; most of these groups are volunteer based and, like everyone else, limited on funds as far as being able to expand their organization and their functions,” Susie said.
Starting in 2016, these groups were given the opportunity to nominate one of their own horses as the Therapy Horse of the Year. The horse that wins travels to the Farm Show Complex in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, during the prestigious Pennsylvania National Horse Show for Foundation Friday, where there is a ceremony in their honor. At the ceremony, the winner receives an embroidered cooler and a wheelbarrow full of treats to take home with them.
Despite living just under a hundred miles from Harrisburg, no one from All Riders Up had ever been to the historic horse show. “We’re a small program and we don’t do a lot of shows...when we were invited to Harrisburg, we didn’t have the vaguest idea of what that would be like. We didn’t know what to expect in terms of his behavior there,” Marcy said. Turns out they had nothing to worry about. Zip, accompanied by his previous owners and his new family at All Riders Up, was a perfect gentleman the entire trip. “He was wonderful,” Marcy recalled fondly.
For the PNHS Foundation, Zip was an obvious choice for horse of the year. ”It was based on a story that All Riders Up submitted to us. He was pretty much a shoo-in for Therapy Horse of the Year that year.”
This was the first of many accolades Zip has received for the incredible work he does with All Riders Up. Last year, he was inducted into the Horse Stars Hall of Fame, immortalized alongside some of the greatest horses of all time, like the inimitable Sapphire. This year, Zip became a household name when he was made into a Breyer horse for Breyerfest’s 30th anniversary, where the theme was a celebration of horse heroes. “[Zip’s] journey from show horse to therapy horse is a testament to the importance of finding second careers for horses.His work with kids and veterans was a perfect fit for our Anniversary theme,” said a representative from Breyer Animal Creations.
This summer, Zip and his team at All Riders Up traveled to the Kentucky Horse Park for Breyerfest to debut his Breyer model. Again, he was thrown into a hectic new environment, the polar opposite of his quiet home. And again, Zip exceeded all expectations. “He tolerated so many things [at Breyerfest], even the Kentucky heat… and lines of people waiting hours to get a picture with him,” said Marcy. “He was just an angel - he could not have been any better. He’s marvelous, that’s all I can say.”
Even though he has gained national acclaim, the most important work Zip does is at the farm in Garnet Valley. Every day, he makes a tangible impact on the lives of his students. One woman, a student in her fifties with cognitive delay, wanted to ride again but was afraid to get back on a horse. Zip was on his best behavior whenever she came to ride, allowing her to reconnect with something she loved.
Another one of his riders, a young man with Asperberger’s, used to be too afraid to get out of the car when he came for his lessons. Despite being unable to ride, he still comes to work with Zip on the ground whenever he has the chance. “Zip has contributed so much to the change in this young man’s life and his family’s life. Everybody he touches, it’s magic,” said Marcy.
While the fame is not something All Riders Up is accustomed to, they would do anything for Zip. Marcy said it best, ”We love having him, no matter what, and he’s worth everything we’ve done for him and with him. We are thrilled he is getting the recognition that he so much deserves.”Photos courtesy of Breyer and All Riders Up.