Pepa the therapy horse provides emotional, physical healing


RIDGEFIELD — “There’s something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.” It’s a quote that has been variously attributed over the years, but is especially true for one Ridgefield horse named Pepa.

Pepa is a 24-year-old gray quarter horse gelding. He is a horse about town; he’s seen every place from festivals to nursing homes. His kind nature and calm patience endears him to those who meet him, and makes their first horse experience a happy one.

Tyler and Susie Castle, of Castle Farms in Ridgefield, have owned Pepa since he was 2 years old. Susie first met Pepa when he was orphaned at birth and he stuck in her mind, so when she had the chance to purchase him, she jumped at it.

“I just started doing stuff with him,” she said. She quickly found that he was a special kind of horse. 

Whatever she did, he just took it in stride. He was trained for reining, dressage and cow sorting, and competed in trail trials. Susie took him to the beach and flew kites from his back.

Pepa knows hand signals, too. He will smile, or tip his head sideways when Susie asks, “Is there something wrong with your head?” He can wave and give butterfly kisses, and will walk to where you are pointing. He can even walk on a balance beam.

“We try to do every discipline we can with our horses,” Tyler said. “Pepa has been really amenable to everything we’ve asked.”

When Pepa was 8 years old, Susie was asked if he could come to visit a nursing home. “Sure,” she said, and Pepa became a therapy horse. He has completed the extensive training required for the Certified Therapy Horse Association. Pepa is even potty trained, so he can go indoors without creating any horse sized puddles on the floor.

“Many times people thought they’d never get to pet a horse again,” Susie said. 

Pepa approached one nonverbal elderly resident and rested his head in her lap, and Susie said she could feel the communication that happened between them.

Pepa’s public visits took a new turn in 2010 when the Castles brought him to a benefit for the Susan G. Komen Foundation, sponsored by the equestrian group Wrinkled Wranglers. Guests dipped their hands in washable paint and created colorful handprints all over Pepa’s white flanks.

It was such a hit, he has become a regular attraction and makes six to eight appearances a year. 

“We like to make someone’s horse experience a good one,” Tyler said. Many people have never seen or touched a horse, and many are afraid of such large animals.

Pepa was a popular stop last fall at Weiden+Kennedy’s Halloween bash on busy and trendy Northwest 23rd Street in Portland. An entire block was cordoned off, and filled with the kinds of things that could scare a horse pretty easily — like kids with balloons and firetrucks. An autistic child ran back and forth underneath his belly. But none of it phased Pepa.

Pepa was at the Rose Parade in Portland in June, situated in a parking lot at a Burgerville. It was a booth for the nonprofit Children’s Healing Art Project, and more than 300 colorful handprints decorated his shiny white coat by the end of the day.

Pepa visits summer camps for the Police Activities League, and the Christmas Round-up at the Clark County Saddle Club.

Pepa is a therapy horse at home, too. After suffering a brain injury six years ago, Susie faced a long recovery. Working with Pepa provided her with the emotional and physical healing that she needed.

Pepa keeps pretty busy at home as well. He is the one who is turned out with young horses to teach them manners. Sometimes his cleverness helps him to get his own way. It’s not unusual for him to let himself out of his stall, move things around in the barn aisle and then mosey back into the stall to act innocent at morning feed time.

“He is one in a million,” Tyler said. “Everyone who knows and spends time with him thinks so.”