Riding Horses at the Deuker Ranch

by Marie A. Fasano

1.The Girls Club riding around the drums.jpg

The Deuker Ranch Equine Assisted Adaptive Riding program is located in Star Valley, Arizona, about 10 minutes from Payson. They teach riding and horsemanship skills with a focus on participants who are challenged physically, cognitively, or socially. Their instructors and volunteers work with youngsters to safely develop independent skills and confidence from horses.­

“I’m really riding!” beamed Charley as she sat astride Autumn, the 850-pound Halfinger. This was her first time riding around the paddock. Dennis, the owner and instructor, walked beside them, quietly giving Charley directions. Prior to this, the little, 9-year-old was petrified to go near a horse. Autumn stands over six feet tall at the shoulders. Her strong, sturdy build provides a safe and stable ride for the children.

“Charley, you are doing so well, tomorrow you can ride big Rex,” Dennis said. He is a Belgian draft horse who weighs in at over 2,000 pounds and over six feet tall at the shoulders, but a gentle as they come.

Although there are several Equine Assisted programs in Arizona, the rural Dueker Ranch, run by husband and wife team, Dennis and Kathy Dueker never charge a fee. It is a 501c3 charitable organization. The ranch began in 2015 after Dennis experienced the power of horses changing lives. Kathy has spent a lifetime around horses, even having worked at Disneyland in California taking care of the draft horses that pull the street cars on Main Street, USA.

2.Becky mounting Autumn with with the help of Dennis and Kathy.jpg

I remember the first time we went to Deuker Ranch and how my niece, Charley cowered as we got near the horses. Kathy gently took her hand and said, “Charley, I have to feed all the horses and I need help, want to come with me?” By the end of the afternoon, Charley was feeding the horses out of her hand. Kathy is as gentle with the horses as she was with Charley.

This is what happens every week at Deuker Ranch with Kathy and Dennis and their volunteers. This Equine Therapeutic riding program is a treatment strategy that in­cludes equine activities or an equine environment. Through the miracles of horses, riders can overcome barriers through the unique power of love and friend­ship with the gentle giants or miniature horses. Their trained volunteers do several tasks. They can be sidewalker/coaches, horse leaders, barn hands, facility maintenance workers, or complete grooming and tacking. They enjoy being around horses.

Research, and the Deukers’ own experience, shows the benefits of therapeutic riding for the participant may include increased strength, flexibility, improved balance and coordination, improved coping and social skills (reduced stress and hyperactivity) and increased quality and quantity of communication.

3.Jacqueline on Ruby with Mat, a volunteer.jpg

The equine movement engages the sensory, neuromotor, language and cognitive systems that support functional daily living skills. Each participant needs a medical release before they are able to ride. The rider always has a volunteer walker next to them while they are on the horse for support, encouragement, and safety.

“I have seen children that were nonverbal speak their first words while sitting on a horse. I have helped children in wheelchairs feel freedom for the first time on the back of a horse. I have taught autistic children to focus and follow directions while riding.” said Dennis.

I spent an afternoon at the Deuker Ranch observing Dennis and Kathy following PATH (Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International) guidelines working with three teens diagnosed as developmentally challenged, on horseback, each with a volunteer at their side. Adriana, Becky, and Jacqueline come for their riding lessons on Thursdays and call themselves “The Girls Club.”

“I’ll do anything to be around horses,” Adriana said. “It’s stress free, no drama.” Smiling as she mounted Merrigold, a pony breed, 14 hands with stout muscles and strong bones.

4.Adriana on Merrigold with Dennis.jpg

Becky had a big smile when Mat, the volunteer walking by the side of her horse said, “You’re directing Autumn really well today.”

“The horses make the girls feel alive,” says Susan, Becky’s mother. “She is shy, but around the horses she talks more.

When the girls were asked if they have a special horse, Jacqueline quickly responded, “We like them all. We mix it up and ride different ones.”

Jacqueline agreed to write a poem about her experiences at Deuker ranch.


Riding Horses

Riding a horse makes me relax.
Riding horses makes me brave and strong.
Riding is fun to do.
Riding is fast sometimes.


The in-depth following of directions has helped Jacqueline achieve gold medals in Special Olympic events. “I see more confidence and assertiveness in her, since she began riding here,” says her mom, Lucy.

Today Jacqueline is riding Ruby, who is over 1,800 pounds. These are work horses. Ruby and Rex, two Belgian Draft horses worked side by side pulling a tourist wagon around Yosemite National Park.

“They like to work,” says Kathy. “The Drafts are not so excitable. They are people friendly.” Kathy is the one at the Deuker Ranch who makes sure the horses are trained. 

The classes progress each week from getting up on a horse, handling the reins, balance, and various exercises.

The exercise on this day was balancing on the horse while drawing. Dennis asked each rider to pick a fun drawing that is on a clipboard. The teens are laughing a lot and look again and again at the papers trying to decide. Once they make their decision they move around the paddock directing the horses around the large round drums. They are very good at riding the horses around the drums as they have done it many times.

As they are riding, they get to pick crayons of their color choice that are on the drums. This takes thinking about choices. The volunteer working with each girl hands them their chosen crayons. Once they have gone around all the drums and selected their colors, they must stop the horse, and balance while drawing.

After stopping the horse with a “Whoa,” then holding the horse quietly, the girls start coloring. It’s a lesson in balancing and keeping the stopped horses in control so they can color.

Once they have completed the task, they continue riding. It was a pleasure to observe the teens exercising with the horses, practicing balance and having fun at the same time.

5.Boys grooming Gracie, a miniature horse at Payson Community Kids.jpg

What about the horses? Children and adults alike fall in love with the herd. At the Deuker Ranch there are three miniature horses, Willow, her daughter Gracie and Kenny. Their small size makes them the perfect horse to meet with small children and those in wheelchairs.

Dennis and Kathy bring the miniature horses to programs and events so children can experience being around horses. One day, at the Payson Community Kids program, the children learn about being around horses by gently brushing them while a volunteer holds the reins. You can sense their calmness while they complete this repetitive task.

Recently, the Ranch acquired Hamish, a Clydesdale colt, its newest addition. Hamish, like their other draft horses, “has an instinct that they want to work and they want to help.” said Dennis. The other “gentle Clydesdale giants” at the Deuker Ranch are the ambassadors often  and used for the Veterans program.

“What makes us different is that our services are free! That’s how important we feel therapeutic riding is,” said Dennis. 

Dueker ranch is a nonprofit Corporation and a 501(c3) Arizona-qualified dollar for dollar tax credit charity.


For more information, contact the Deukers at 928-978-7039, DuekerRanch@gmail.com, or visit duekerranchhorsetherapy.com.

Author Spotlight: Susan Count

Susan Count writes at an antique secretary desk which belonged to the same grandmother who introduced her to horse books as a child. Today, she shares her love of horses through the pages of her award-winning Dream Horse Adventures series. 


Where did you grow up? 
I’m proud to say I am the daughter of a career Army officer. We moved every nine months except for one assignment in Hawaii. Transferring schools in the middle of terms meant being constantly disoriented and translated to only having superficial friendships of convenience. But the lifestyle galvanized me with tremendous strength and confidence to take on unknown challenges. I think the experience gives depth to my stories.

Did you read a lot as a child? 
My father was twice deployed to a war zone and left us with my mother’s parents in Falls Village, Connecticut. His mother, Charlotte Dann Count worked as a librarian in the same town. She recognized in me a love for horses and supplied me with the classic horse books. It wasn’t that I loved to read as much as I wanted to experience a life with a horse and the only way that could happen was in a book. 

What were some of your favorite authors and books? 
Anything horse. Black Beauty, The Black Stallion, Misty. And Saturday morning television fed my equine addiction with Fury, Flicka, The Lone Ranger, and Roy Rogers. Back in the day, all heroes rode horses.

What did you want to be when you grew up?
I knew at an early age that my gifting was in composition. While I had a natural aptitude for vocabulary, punctuation skills evaded mastery. I used what literary skills I had in my everyday life, but had no career aspirations. When my children were born, I was completely, exclusively devoted to their well-being and education.

Tell us about some of the jobs you’ve had before you became a writer.
My first job was at a finance company where I learned that it is imperative to be responsible with credit. I loved being a secretary and organizing a work environment. Later, I earned an Associates Degree in applied science and worked as an x-ray technician. I never felt that it suited me and didn’t return to work after I was blessed with children. 

How did you get started writing? 
I’m always surprised to hear myself say, “I’m an author,” because I wrote a book by accident. In fact, if anyone had told me to write a book, I would have scoffed at the notion. Now there are three novels in the Dream Horse Adventures series. I started writing in a season of grief. Some days I wrote 100 words and others 800. The pain of my loss lifted and was replaced with sweet joy. I realized I was finally doing what I was born to do. I loved writing and I loved the story that seemed to magically flower on the page. It took me only three months to write my first book – Selah’s Sweet Dream. Then it took nearly two years to take it chapter by chapter to a critique group to shape it into an award-winning novel.

Why do you write books? 
I write because God has blessed me with gifts and abilities that He expects me to use for His glory. In the process, He gives me a great joy, a sense of a job well done, and a certainty that I have pleased my heavenly Father.

The real Selah and her painted dream.

The real Selah and her painted dream.

What do you like best about writing? 
Three things: First, my heart is completely blessed to get to read my stories to my grandchildren. Second, it’s a sweet satisfaction when a child runs to my book table and expresses delight in discovering a new horse book. Third, I’m greatly humbled and appreciative when readers take the time to leave a review on Amazon to tell me how much they loved the book. All these things give me great joy and bring a smile that cannot be suppressed. They encourage me to write on.

What do you find the most challenging about writing? 
Meeting the expectations of people and conforming to the rules of publication. I was told by traditional publishing houses the market for horse books was saturated. 

What makes a good story? 
Experiencing the struggles of life through a character and seeing how the struggles change them. The relationship between Selah, her horse, and her grandfather is special, tender, and endearing. It is my calling to write wholesome books that take readers on a wild ride.

Where do you get your inspiration? 
The beauty of old age is the wealth of life experiences that enable me to layer nuance into a story so that it connects with readers of all ages. My grandchildren and my equine treasures keep the stories real. Horses have a strangle hold on my heart. I’m not sure if I was born with a love of horses or if I fell in love at first sight. I can’t imagine my life without my pasture ornaments and I hope to be able to ride them on the forest trails all the days of my life.


Tell me about your latest book. 
My new release is Selah’s Painted Dream. It was a great delight to write and I’m excited to share it with you. I stalked the artist, who lives in Moscow, to obtain the rights to the cover. Thirteen-year-old Selah’s life is about as perfect as it gets. She has horse friends at school, and on weekends, she rides her black mare on Grandpa’s farm. Training the horse to do upper-level liberty work is what makes her heart beat. But one word can ruin a perfect life—moving. A move would separate her from her horse, so she plots to get her name on the farm mailbox instead. She’s sure she could persuade Grandpa—except he’s overly distracted by a sheep-loving neighbor. Determined not to let Grandpa's new sweetheart take her place in his heart, Selah puts her hope in a painted dream horse from Grandpa’s past. When she snugs up the girth and buckles on her spurs, Selah rides to win.

What’s next for you? 
While I have another horse adventure book in the back of my mind, it has not made it to paper yet. My grandboys are clamoring for stories about them and have given me some hilarious moments to paint into their adventure story. The Firefly Warriors is in the process of being submitted to traditional publishing. Saddle up and ride along! 

For more information about Susan Count and her books, visit www.susancount.com.