Mending bodies and spirits

  • By Noah Haglund Herald Writer
  • Tuesday, February 8, 2011 12:01am
  • Local News

An 18-year-old horse is on her way to help soldiers recover from battlefield stress and brain injuries, more than a year after leaving a Sultan farm that was at the center of an animal cruelty case.
The chestnut mare named Cisca had been under the county’s care since September 2009, when she was seized as part of a criminal investigation. Of 10 horses Snohomish County animal control took in, Cisca was the last to be adopted.
On Wednesday, Debbi Fisher picked up Cisca for a new life at Rainier Therapeutic Riding, the program she runs at her farm in Yelm.
Cisca will be part of a team of horses being used to help soldiers from Joint Base Lewis-McChord recover from post traumatic stress disorder and head injuries. Her new life comes with a new name: Liberty.
“She has got the most perfect disposition and loving eye,” Fisher said. “I think the soldiers and her are going to help each other a lot.”
Cisca had been one of 19 horses living on a 2.3-acre farm on Trout Farm Road in Sultan.
Veterinarians recommended that the county seize 10 of them. Three of the seized equines were euthanized. One of the surviving horses gave birth to a colt that was adopted last year by a local family.
The trial for the horses’ former owner, Mary Peterson, began Monday and was scheduled to resume today in Snohomish County Superior Court. Peterson, 40, is charged with six counts of first-degree animal cruelty. She could face up to a year in jail on the felony charge, plus court-ordered restitution and other penalties. The county’s bill for that case now tops $60,000.
With Cisca’s departure, the county is no longer caring for any horses, county animal control manager Vicki Lubrin said.
County officials say they seize horses as a last resort, only after exhausting efforts to work with the owner to resolve any problems.
Caring for the horses is expensive, costing taxpayers an average of $18 per day per animal. Despite those expenses, the county is careful about where it places horses for adoption.
When the county’s animal control manager met Fisher and learned about her mission at Rainier Therapeutic Riding, she knew Cisca’s easygoing personality and temperament would make a good match.
“I was just impressed with how thoroughly they screen their horses and the testing they do to make sure that it’s the right fit for their program,” Lubrin said. “They’re very, very thorough.”
Therapeutic riding programs have proliferated as a way to help children and adults heal and gain confidence.
The North American Riding for the Handicapped Association, or NARHA, was founded in 1969 and now certifies more than 800 therapeutic riding centers, in the United States and beyond.
Some centers need ponies and smaller horses for their work with disabled or injured children. That’s not the case in Fisher’s program, where the average rider is a 225-pound soldier. The largest client, at the moment, is 290 pounds.
“For my therapeutic riding program, I need bigger, stronger horses,” Fisher said.
Cisca — now Liberty — fit the bill at 1,100 pounds. She stands an impressive 16 hands, or 5 feet 4 inches tall at the withers, the part of the back between the shoulder blades. Liberty will have a place to stay for the rest of her life.
Fisher, 52, comes from a military family. One of her sons is a Marine Corps sergeant and her daughter is an Air Force pilot.
Fisher and her husband, Col. Randall Fisher, moved to Washington from Oregon after Sept. 11, 2001 when he was activated to return to full-time duty with the Air National Guard and assigned to the Western Air Defense Sector. Col. Fisher died in a car accident in 2006. That left Debbi Fisher to manage their farm with her late husband’s big Appaloosa named Root Beer.
She could have moved back to Oregon, but thought, “God led me here to stay here.”
She started her riding program in September, after going through certification with NARHA. Now, 23 soldiers are in Fisher’s program.
They start on the ground, getting to know their horse, building confidence and trust. They don’t even get on a horse until the fifth lesson.
“I keep the same horse and the same volunteer with them through the whole eight-week program,” Fisher said. “They feel very comfortable, even though they sometimes have a lot of anxiety about getting on the horse for the first time.”
The military drives the soldiers out to her farm and brings along an occupational therapist.
The soldiers are among more than 600 at Joint Base Lewis-McChord’s Warrior Transition Battalion. The battalion is one of 30 plus transition units created throughout the Army since 2007 to aid the wounded, ill and injured.
The soldiers in the riding program may not appear wounded, but they all have significant physical wounds or mental injuries, said Suzanne Ovel, a spokeswoman for the battalion.
“When you first glance at somebody, you might not pick up on the reason that they’re here,” Ovel said.
The battalion also involves its members in occupational therapy, social work and adaptive sports.
Sports for some soldiers might include wheelchair basketball, adaptive skiing or adaptive rowing, depending on their specific injuries.
Fisher said the horses work well with soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress and brain injuries.
A horse will mirror a soldier’s anxiety. When soldiers notice the horses’ reaction, they try to lower their anxiety levels to calm the horse.
“They think they’re helping the horse,” Fisher said, “but they’re really helping themselves.”
Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465,
Learn more Rainier Therapeutic Riding has a website,, and a page on Facebook. The North American Riding for the Handicapped Association, or NARHA, promotes safe and effective therapeutic riding. Learn more at

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