Most owners choose their horses' vocations, training them to perform in a certain discipline. Sugar Babe, however, chose both her owners and her occupation. The Arabian
mare's decades of devoted service as an equine-assisted therapy horse began after she repeatedly escaped from her pasture and ended up at Bill and Lynn Schumacher's Kent Special Riding Program
(KSRP) in Alto, Michigan. The Schumachers finally offered to purchase her from her owner, a young member of Bill's 4-H club, for what they would later call the best hundred dollars they had ever spent. And once she officially arrived at KSRP, Sugar Babe never again left the farm: she had found her calling.
The Schumachers had been instrumental in starting KSRP after their son, Jeff, sustained a life-altering traumatic brain injury at the age of five. They began the program in 1976 with the goal of providing therapeutic horseback riding for children and adults with special needs. By riding and building relationships with horses like Sugar Babe, participants could increase their confidence and develop new physical and social skills.
Once Sugar Babe became a therapy
horse at KSRP, she quickly established herself as a priceless asset to the program. It did not take long for the staff, volunteers and riders to appreciate her quiet, gentle disposition and wonder how they had ever managed without her. Her small stature and sweet nature inspired confidence in the fearful, freedom for those with limited mobility, security for those who were not always treated fairly by people, and a steady rock and safety net for all.
Sugar Babe often took on the challenging role of helping riders who required an extremely gentle mount. With these riders, she consistently displayed incredible patience and sensitivity, far surpassing normal expectations for a Hippotherapy
horse. She would stand still for as long as it took to execute difficult transfers, maintain a steady stride for those learning to trot and canter, and carefully shift her weight or stop to prevent unbalanced riders from slipping. Her obvious concern for her riders made her a valuable and trustworthy partner for the special needs riders served by KSRP.
For many years, KSRP had a 4-H Club
called the Stablemates, which provided their riders the opportunity to show against non-disabled youth. Sugar Babe was a project horse for a number of club members, and her steady disposition gave many of them confidence to enter the show ring. On Sugar Babe, many 4-H members with special needs experienced the thrill of competing and performing at local horse shows and at the annual 4-H fair in Lowell, MI. They showed Sugar Babe English and Western, competing in showmanship, horsemanship, pleasure, and trail classes. The versatile mare also took part in the KSRP drill team. Deb, the Schumachers' youngest daughter, showed Sugar Babe at the Michigan State 4-H Horse Show in East Lansing, MI and earned medals in showmanship, horsemanship, pleasure, bareback and trail classes. Along with her show appearances, Sugar Babe didn't mind dressing up on occasion: she willingly wore a Santa Claus hat and jingle bells for the team's "Christmas in July" theme, and she even entered a costume class dressed in a pink tutu!
As Sugar Babe grew older, many at KSRP believed it would be best to give her a well-deserved break after so many faithful years of service. She was honored in 2000 as the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship
(PATH) International Horse of the Year. But though they tried to retire her, she let them know that her work was not yet done: when other classes were in session, she would tap her leg on the fence, insisting that she be allowed to join. As always, Sugar Babe knew best, and so she returned to her favorite vocation.
Sugar Babe continued to be used as a therapy horse until two days before she passed away in July 2002 at the age of 41. The last rider she carried was a visually impaired four-year-old girl with multiple medical issues. The girl, who had limited time to live, was extremely fearful and would not ride any horse except Sugar Babe. After the young girl's passing, her mother sent a letter thanking KSRP's staff, especially Sugar Babe, for giving her daughter so much comfort and enjoyment during the short time she had on this earth. From the beginning to the end of her long career at KSRP, during which she served over a thousand riders, Sugar Babe inspired those around her with her calm, willing nature. Clearly, she had found where she belonged.