The sheer force of Sangree Marshall's personality was enough to earn him devotion and respect from riders and other horses alike during his years as a therapeutic riding horse. The striking flaxen chestnut Quarterhorse
, nicknamed Poncho, was the undisputed leader of the five other geldings who shared his field at High Hopes Therapeutic Riding
in Old Lyme, Connecticut. Poncho kept them all in line without ever seeming to work at it. And the self-assurance that other horses recognized in Poncho carried over to his interactions with people as well.
Poncho worked at High Hopes from 1995 until his retirement in 2009 serving the participants in their therapeutic programs, both under saddle and on the ground.
"Poncho was the head honcho! The other horses just knew that he was the best leader, and I think that was why he had such an impact on people too. He had an air of confidence that made you feel like all must be just as it should be, as long as you were on or around him," said Holly Sundmacker, Equine Operations Director at High Hopes.
Before his donation to High Hopes, Poncho had already shown promise at working with riders with special needs. His previous owner loaned him to the Special Olympics
World Summer Games in 1995. The American Quarter Horse Association
was partnering with the Special Olympics that year, so registered Quarter Horses like Poncho were in high demand for the Special Olympics' equestrian events, which were held at High Hopes Therapeutic Riding
In a perfect concurrence of interests, High Hopes staff noticed Poncho's potential as a Hippotherapy
horse, while Poncho's owner was hoping to find him a new home with a lighter workload. The High Hopes program fit the bill for Poncho, and he settled into his new career.
Poncho's gregarious nature made him very popular and allowed him to serve as an ambassador for the program. "He was the first horse to greet you at the fence," recalled Kitty Stalburg, High Hopes Executive Director, "and we always chose him to be the smiling face in the barn when events were happening." Poncho, whom Stalsburg described as "benevolent and kind, while still firm," fit right in at High Hopes.
Poncho's riders treasured him for his outgoing nature, and his flashy good looks didn't hurt. He epitomized the Quarter Horse breed with his bulky body, sculpted face, and kind eyes. "People melted in his presence," Stalsburg said. "Everyone he met ADORED him." Poncho was beautiful, smart and kind - traits recognized by Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship
(PATH) International when Poncho was awarded Equine of the Year in 2006.
Throughout his years of service, Poncho faced every day with his trademark welcoming demeanor and strong work ethic. "The best quality about Poncho is his consistency," Stalsburg noted. "He was consistently available to his people. He has the accepting personality you would want in your best friend. He just loved everyone, no matter who they were."
Poncho gave his riders not only affection, but also encouragement to work hard to overcome obstacles. "Poncho had the uncanny ability to test his riders at the exact right moment," Sundmacker said. "He taught many people to ask instead of to tell. He taught them about composure in all circumstances, except when your heart is broken - which was when his beloved best friend Cody retired and left the farm. That was the only time I saw Poncho be sad. But there was a lesson in that too: even the most awesome have their share of bad days."
Poncho's poise and panache made his riders instantly comfortable and inspired them to work hard for him. Poncho earned cooperation through patience and kindness, through an unspeakable air he had about him. Beyond simply being steady and patient, he actively worked to put his riders at ease.
To work with individuals with special needs, horses have to be patient and kind, but Poncho did more than wait and tolerate. He was therapy for all you who crossed his path.