By Erika Weisensee
The Portland Upside
The Portland Upside
Sycamore Lane Riding Center in Oregon City, Oregon, offers therapeutic horseback riding for a wide range of physical and mental conditions.
Dr. Suzanne Cleland-Zamudio is a surgeon, wife and mother of two teenaged sons. She works 50 to 60 hours a week, sometimes more. She is also writing a book about raising a son with autism. Suzanne has helped many people. Still, she felt something was missing and wanted to do more.
Two years ago after a vivid dream, Suzanne felt compelled to transform her family’s land into something meaningful for the community. She sat down with her husband Genaro and explained her idea.
“He said, ‘Let’s do it!’” she remembers.
So despite an already busy life, they cashed in their retirement and set out to build a nonprofit, state-of-the-art therapeutic riding center to serve children and adults with a wide range of physical and mental disabilities.
Located in Oregon City, Sycamore Lane Therapeutic Riding Center sits on five beautiful acres of land near the Clackamas River. The Cleland-Zamudios live on the property, which they share with 11 horses, several goats, and a cat named Oreo.
Suzanne grew up at Sycamore Lane, raising and training Welsh and Arabian cross ponies with her family. In 1999 after returning from Minnesota where she completed her medical residency, she purchased the farm from her mother and moved her own family to the land of her childhood.
When Suzanne and Genaro started their project in 2008, the property needed a lot of work. They began by demolishing the decrepit 100-year-old chicken house with the help of 50 or 60 friends.
“It was like Extreme Makeover, chicken house edition,” Suzanne says.
Within a few months, Suzanne’s dream was taking shape. First, she constructed a fireproof barn to house the center’s horses. The 120- by 60-foot covered arena came next, complete with a wheelchair ramp and harness to help lift wheelchair-bound riders to the horses. The property’s old “birthing barn” became the center’s new office and tack room. The facility was completed in July, 2009 and opened for lessons in August.
From the beginning, Suzanne was committed to “doing it right.” Sycamore Lane instructors are trained and certified by the North American Riding For the Handicapped Association (NARHA) and the facility is wheelchair/ADA compliant. The center also utilizes the services of two hippotherapists, one occupational therapist and one physical therapist.
Hippotherapy involves traditional physical, occupational or speech therapy in conjunction with the multi-dimensional movement of a horse.
But naturally, the ten therapy horses are the center’s stars. They are gentle animals, some with fascinating stories. Buster, for instance, rescued from Portland Meadows, came to Sycamore Lane with severe foot injuries. After careful attention from a veterinarian and a fitting with special shoes, he is now an excellent therapy horse. All the horses were carefully selected to adapt to many situations.
“They have to be okay with rattling hula hoops and other distractions,” Suzanne explains.
While therapeutic riding is more popular on the East Coast, its benefits are not as well known in the West, with only a few other therapeutic riding centers in the Northwest.
Therapeutic riding is believed to be an effective therapy for a variety of mental and physical conditions, including autism spectrum disorder, sensory integration and speech-language dysfunctions, traumatic brain injuries, stroke and Alzheimer’s disease. Patients receive treatment appropriate to their individual conditions and needs.
As Suzanne walks through her property, offering a tour of the arena, barn and tack room, she exudes passion and enthusiasm for her new calling.
“I wanted to serve a population that wasn’t getting served,” she says, “and I wanted to do it well.”
She is grateful to the dedicated volunteers who help make the center’s work possible and to the many people, including local contractors, who have donated funds, time, labor and materials.
“Starting up a nonprofit in the middle of a recession is not the easiest thing in the world,” she adds.
As a rider herself, Suzanne knows well the effect horses have on human emotion. When her son Antonio was diagnosed with autism, she saw the positive impact riding had for him. At the age of five and a half, Antonio made miraculous progress and was able to be mainstreamed in school. While Suzanne can’t explain her son’s transformation, she is eloquent about her desire to help other families experience breakthroughs for their children.
“We’ve already seen a few miracles happen here,” Suzanne says.
A couple of children have spoken their first words at the center. One of those children was atop his horse during a therapy session. He yelled, “Go!” to the surprise of his therapists and others in the arena who had never heard him speak before. Another child with a severe aversion to food ate his first solid food at the facility.
With about 18 riders—from children as young as three to middle-aged adults—Sycamore Lane is truly a place of inspiration and healing for everyone involved. And Suzanne has realized her dream to make a significant contribution to her community. Eventually she hopes to serve 40 to 60 riders per week.
For more information visit sycamorelane.org or call 503-593-7084.
Erika Weisensee is a Portland-area writer. She teaches journalism and communication courses at the University of Portland.