Suncie Skyra Ray, or simply "Suncie," dedicated her life to therapeutic riding and those with special needs. Suncie began her career as a therapy
horse in 1972 at the young age of 3, and she gave tirelessly of herself until her retirement ceremony in 2003. She was the foundation horse for Therapeutic Horsemanship
, a program founded in 1975 that was one of the first 10 riding therapy programs to be accredited by Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship
(PATH) International (then called NARHA).
During her over thirty years of diligent service, Suncie carried riders of all ages and disabilities, ranging from 2-year-olds to 70-year-olds, and riders with cerebral palsy, strokes, muscular dystrophy, traumatic brain injuries, autism, learning differences and much more. Suncie never once faltered or took a wrong step. Her disposition was always caring and motherly. For those riders unable to balance by themselves or even with side walkers she willingly carried a back rider to help stabilize them in the middle of her back. She worked in Hippotherapy
, camp programs (one summer giving rides to over 500 campers), and sports riding. She carried individuals that were learning how to ride effectively in spite of their disabilities. Be it unsteady hands, legs, bodies, or cognitive challenges, she was patient with them all.
Lisa, a rider with cerebral palsy who rode her for nearly 10 years, said that Suncie made her feel graceful and free from her wheel chair. Ellie, a girl with tight, spastic arms, struggled to steer Suncie, yet Suncie could interpret her unclear directions. Two-year-old Andrew with quadrapleia rode Suncie in lessons and horse shows, and gained balance, strength and confidence. Many years later, Andrew attributes his skills gained from Suncie to his success as a disabilities lawyer. Jeane, an adult woman with cancer, worn down by chemotherapy, loved Suncie wholeheartedly. As her rides got shorter and she weakened, Suncie seemed to step even more carefully, as if she knew she was carrying a very delicate passenger. Suncie's ability to understand her rider's needs and commands was almost uncanny; it was although there was a telepathic communication between rider and horse. No matter the severity of disability she seemed to figure it out.
Suncie was a key player on the Therapeutic Horsemanship
competitive team, and she was the popular mount that riders chose for dressage shows and pleasure classes. Suncie was the horse of choice for riders to show off their skills in public demonstrations and parades because of her confidence in unusual situations, never spooking at anything. While working as a therapy horse, she was also a competition horse for her owner, Sandy Rafferty, competing in dressage, hunter trials, jumping, cross country and pleasure classes. She was an amazing all around horse, willing to do anything that her owner asked of her.
In 1999, Suncie was selected as the PATH
National Therapy Horse of the year because of her long service (24 years at that time), caring temperament, versatility, stamina and devotion to therapeutic riding. Sandy owned Suncie from the mare's birth until her death at the age of 34. In October of 2003, Suncie laid down in her stall and could not get back up. After so many years of service, Sandy realized was Suncie's time to go on, and she held Suncie's head in her lap as she calmly passed away.
Suncie's lasting contribution to the therapeutic riding world was her unending ability to give her riders' confidence, knowing that she would carry them through anything, anywhere very successfully. Suncie's kind brown eyes and large, solid confirmation encouraged her riders to achieve skills they thought were impossible. Suncie never faultered, spooked or tripped, giving wholeheartedly to her riders each and every time.