It’s a pretty obvious cliché but true: Tara East has spent most of her life horsing around.
East is the executive director of the Cheff Therapeutic Riding Center in Augusta, which provides equine therapy and serves riders of all ages who have physical, emotional or cognitive disabilities. Its clients range from 14 months to 92 years.
In operation since 1970, the Cheff Center has also become an internationally recognized training center to certify those who want to provide equine therapy.
East, who has been at the helm since 2006, says there is no “cooler place to work. “
“You get to wear jeans and be around horses, and even though some of our clients just have the worst afflictions, they come here with smiles on their faces. We transform their day for them and sometimes their lives and sometimes those of the people around them.”
How did you end up where you are today?
When I was first married, my brother-in-law suffered a traumatic brain injury and I would bring him out to the Cheff Center. I thought, “This is a cool place. I could do this kind of work.” I was always into horses. As my kids grew, we used to come here and volunteer, and we brought a 4H group here to volunteer as well — I always had my hands in the work here.
In 2000, the main building went down — it collapsed from the weight of the snow — and they needed help, so I got onto the board. Several years later, they were searching for a new director, and even though we were doing a national search, we couldn’t find anybody that had the right experience. At the time, Blaine Lam was helping us with the transition, and I told him, “I don’t know if this is a good or bad idea, but I know this business, I know horses, I know kids and I have the community outreach. I think I should run it.” And he agreed.
Do those who come for training to learn hippotherapy have experience with horses or do you get complete neophytes?
Yes (she laughs).
We often work with people who have these grandiose dreams about working with horses, and we have to show them how much work it really is. We take our time with people. Because we work with people with special needs, we are used to being patient and kind. But we tell them you have to work really, really hard and the pay is really, really low, but if you want to make a living out of this you can do it.
What’s been your biggest challenge at the Cheff Center?
It’s always the money challenges in a nonprofit. We find the right people pretty easily because it is a specialized niche and the horse world is a small world and we all know people who know people.
The Cheff Center has been around for 47 years, and it’s not because we don’t know what we are doing. I would like us to go on for another 47 years. I want to make sure this place gets the fences and roofs and all the support it needs so that when I finally do leave, they are able to focus on the mission and just financially roll along.
What do you do when you aren’t here?
I own a small ranch, three miles up the road, called East Fork Farms. We give riding lessons to able-bodied students, and we also work with Gull Lake Schools on a combination P.E./science class. I have 108 students come in every week and learn the science of horses and then learn to ride. It’s great.
How many horses do you work with?
I have 20 quarter horses on my ranch and 18 horses here.
That’s a lot of horses.
People don’t realize, but horses suffer from burnout just like humans. It’s hard work, and sometimes clients can bite or hit or pinch a horse and it’s hard on the horses.
I’d like to open a whole new facet of our training — showing people how to train the therapeutic horses. Horses burn out so fast. A horse might last a year, and some come back from burnout and some don’t.
Another hope is that someday we’ll be able to breed therapeutic horses based on their personality and size. Because our clients are getting bigger in size, we need bigger horses and there are just some horses who really embrace the job.
Do you ever get tired of looking at horses?
Never. It’s like going to play every day.