BRENTWOOD -- The calming influence of spending the day in a stable among horses and being able to talk to them and pet their necks lasted well into the evening for Sherri Cline's 10-year-old daughter, Alexis.

For Cline and other parents of children with special needs in East County, last weekend's grand opening of the Zia Ranch Horsemanship Program in Brentwood means that a popular form of therapy for their children will now be available locally.

Alexis has been diagnosed with high-functioning autism along with sensory issues and her mom said that she thrives on deep pressure and loves animals because they understand her. The Clines' local search for hippotherapy, a type of speech, physical and occupational therapy involving horses, was unsuccessful.

"She was serene today," Cline said of Alexis' first visit to Zia. "Just being there was therapy. I'm looking forward to contacting the ranch about when we can set up an individual session."

Located on Sunset Road, the 20-acre ranch offers therapeutic horsemanship for children and adults with emotional, physical and psychological struggles. According to Zia founder Calyn Ewing, the benefits include enhanced strength, balance, flexibility, endurance and well-being.

"The rocking motion of being on the horses gets their brain waves moving and working," she said. "It is very beneficial for their muscles, core body strength and fine motor and gross motor skills. We want to see the kids smile."


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Horses have been the passion of Ewing and her parents, who bought the ranch 15 years ago to board their seven horses. Students at the ranch will be able to groom and saddle their horses, participate in warm up exercises, ride in the arena and play sensory games based on their individual needs.

"The kids feel like the horses are someone they can talk to without someone judging them. It helps with their self-esteem and just being comfortable," Ewing said. "All they want to do is be like everyone else."

Another service at Zia is ecotherapy, which Ewing said is meant to improve physical and mental wellness through experiences in nature. She added that the ranch is also a place of respite and solitude for parents and siblings of the horse riders.

Oakley mom Heather DiMaggio said that the ranch will benefit her daughter both socially and emotionally because she has ADHD and anxiety.

"Our prayers have been answered. It is right in our backyard," she said. "This is something positive that she can do."

Ewing noted that ranch was named after a Native American symbol representing family, nature and wellness. Private lessons will cost $45 each and there will be a scholarship program for students with financial need. Camps will also be offered this summer.

"Out here, horses outnumber people. We are a big equestrian community, but we don't know it," Ewing said.

"It is a great equine community."

Reach Paula King at 925-779-7174 or pking@bayareanewsgroup.com.

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The Zia Ranch Horsemanship Program is at 2340 Sunset Road, Brentwood. For more information, call 925-642-1229 or go to www.ziaranch.org.