By Diana Pikulski
When the going gets tough, the tough get going.
Outside of Modesto, CA, Julie Baker, founder of Healing Arenas, is launching a new project for first responders through EAGALA (Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association). The new program is part of an already ambitious roster of EAGALA programs that Healing Arenas offers veterans, families of veterans and at-risk youth. Baker also takes the time to retrain Thoroughbreds as police horses and showcases her off-track Thoroughbreds as ambassadors for the racing industry at the state capital in Sacramento. This year, she competed at the Retired Racehorse Project in Lexington, KY and earned 16th place out of 81 entries in the freestyle class. Baker also works full-time as an EMT and is in her 12th year on the emergency squad.
Her go-to EAGALA horse is Florida-bred Viva Pentelicus (Pentelicus). Foaled in 1996, he raced 96 times and earned $347,464. He broke his maiden at Hawthorne running for John Franks and Steve Asmussen and was retired at age nine to the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation (TRF) from Remington Park after finishing second by a neck. Over a seven-year career, he hit the board 45 times. He has been in Baker’s program since 2012.
“He is the best therapy horse we have,” says Baker. “He is all business and doesn’t strive to get the most attention as some horses do. You have to work for it, meaning you have to be honest and genuine in your expressions and that is exactly how horses help people. We are so grateful to the TRF for providing him.”
In some ways, Viva Pentelicus’s life is still like that of a racehorse. Every week he gets on a trailer and goes to work at a program.
“He does his job. He is a pro and a champ,” said Baker. “When people hear how much money he won, they are amazed because he is a small horse. It adds to his effectiveness in building self-esteem and confidence.”
Healing Arenas is located in Stanislaus County, three hours south of the Camp Fire that has claimed at least 81 lives as of this writing. The smoke has blanketed the area. It is not only a health hazard, but is a constant reminder of the devastation happening to fellow Californians just hours away in addition to the traumatic effect it is having on the fire fighters, EMS, law enforcement, the recovery effort as well as other first responders.
Baker’s new pilot program will be certified as a continuing education course for first responders and will focus on resilience in your job, with your family and in your life.
Baker credits her ability to serve on the ambulance for so many years to her work in EAGALA.
“There is still a stigma within this population about asking for help,” Baker said. “The program will be a judgment-free place and the horses will break the ice as participants and the facilitators watch the horses’ behavior with each other in the herd. The work will progress from there. It is exactly what this population needs right now. Like veterans, they need comfort, confidence, and a safe place to explore their own questions of resilience. The horses are completely non-judgmental. There is no stigma here–just a benefit for accepting what you are feeling.”
Viva has had a busy year as the Healing Companions’ team explored other new areas for EAGALA services. The horses are in the middle of a fully funded pilot program for a local organization that helps survivors of human trafficking where, once again, Viva was the shining star in the program.
“There is such a need for this population and Viva read the participants perfectly,” Baker said. “He was the epitome of patience and acceptance of everything that these young people were going through.”
Diana Pikulski is the editor of the Thoroughbred Adoption Network, a searchable database and information source for those seeking off-track thoroughbreds to adopt.