We Can Ride group no longer can ride at U

  • Article by: JENNA ROSS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 17, 2012 - 11:24 PM

An equine nonprofit and the University of Minnesota part ways over costs and academic issues.

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Volunteers Gail Streitz, left, Taylor Gause and Susan Vince worked with cerebral palsy client Steven Becker at the U of M’s Equine Center on Tuesday.

Photo: Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

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A program that provides horse-riding therapy for children and adults with disabilities will no longer call the University of Minnesota home.

Amid regrets and recriminations, the university decided not to renew We Can Ride's lease on its St. Paul campus. The lease ends Oct. 31.

"Nobody feels good about this," said Trevor Ames, dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine. "It was a really difficult decision."

The arrangement was costing the U money, edging out other programming and threatening its accreditation, Ames said. Last summer, the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care cited the university for housing animals that it did not own or care for.

"Obviously, the university is going to do everything it can to keep its full accreditation," Ames said.

Some volunteers opposed to the move created an online petition that collected hundreds of signatures. They say that losing We Can Ride's only big-city location will make it impossible for some clients to continue their therapy.

"People are just heartbroken," said Kay-Marie Jurkovich, a volunteer. "It is so sad that disabled people in the urban area won't have access to this amazing program."

We Can Ride served about 120 clients at the U this year, its fifth year there. The Minnetonka-based nonprofit works with more than 300 clients at all its sites combined, including a farm in New Germany, where it hopes to send clients from St. Paul. It's losing its Delano site this year because the owner is retiring, said Brad Thorsen, executive director. But the organization plans to open a location in Hastings next spring.

'Our most expensive site'

Money was an issue for the nonprofit, too. The university "was our most expensive site," Thorsen said. "There were some who thought we were paying too much to be there. Some thought we should pay whatever it takes to stay there. There was not complete unanimity on the subject."

Yearly rent for eight stalls was $30,000. Parking cost $12,000 to $15,000 on top of that, Thorsen said.

The program paid no rent for its first three years at the equine center, Ames said, thanks to a subsidy that came through former President Robert Bruininks' office, with matching support from two of the U's colleges. The university and nonprofit applied for grants to replace that funding but were unsuccessful, he said.

The We Can Ride program played a role in fundraising to build stalls in the equine center. Jurkovich questions whether it's appropriate for the U to kick the program out of a barn that it helped get built.

The university has not heard any complaints from donors, Ames said. Since the Leatherdale Equine Center opened in 2007, he said in a letter, the U's equine program "has experienced significant growth," including in its clinical caseload and teaching.

Leaving the U is "a disappointment, certainly," Thorsen said. But during the organization's 30-year history, it has left sites and opened others, he said. "You can't expect to be in one place forever," he said. "We did what we could to stay there.

"Now, we're looking to the future."

Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168 Twitter: @ByJenna

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