- Written by Lori Van Ingen Lori Van Ingen
The Capital Area Therapeutic Riding Association holds a special place in volunteer Roni Dietrich’s heart.
“CATRA is my refuge,” Dietrich said. “When I started (volunteering at CATRA), I had just learned I had rheumatoid arthritis and was in menopause at the same time. My emotions were all over the place.”
Since 1985, CATRA has been the place to go to find “animals helping people.” CATRA is a therapeutic riding school for people of all generations with all types of special and typical needs.
Clients have had everything from multiple sclerosis, fibromyalgia, and Guillain-Barré syndrome to Down syndrome, autism, and Asperger’s syndrome. CATRA has also welcomed clients with attention deficit disorder, learning disabilities, memory issues, dyslexia, hydrocephaly, rheumatoid arthritis, and nerve damage.
Dietrich began volunteering in 1998, working with the horses every Wednesday morning and then helping all year long with lessons for CATRA’s 125-135 riders per week.
“I’ve never found (a therapeutic riding school) like CATRA. It’s an amazing program with no paid staff, not even the directors,” she said.
Because CATRA has no paid employees, volunteers are “right there in the mix, cleaning stalls, grooming horses, working with the clients,” Dietrich said.
Two years later, CATRA founder and director Shirley Nolt came to Dietrich and said, “I’ve got you a horse.”
“She brings out this horse that is every little girl’s dream,” Dietrich said. “I was like 12 years old again.”
The horse—named C.D. for the actor, Charles Dutton, who had previously owned him—was 2 years old and had never had a saddle or lead line.
“I had never worked with a green horse before,” she said. “We were thrown out there together.”
C.D., now aged 19, turned into one of the nicest, friendliest, calmest horses at CATRA.
“Shirley calls him ‘the babysitter.’ It feels good being part of that. Every little girl who comes through says, ‘That’s the horse I love.’”
Currently, there are about 25 horses in the program, as well as a few miniature horses and donkeys, working with clients who come from the six to eight surrounding counties. The horses are generally older horses, with a median age of 20 years.
“They are fantastic horses. Not every horse can take an autistic child who rocks back and forth or hums and chatters without being scared and running off. Not every horse can take two people on each side (leading them) or two riders on their backs,” Dietrich said. “These horses do it with grace.”
Every Wednesday, Dietrich waters and feeds the horses with a special mixture made specifically for each individual horse’s health issues. She also gives them medications in a big syringe for those who won’t take it in their food.
Then, after eating lunch with the girlfriends she has made at CATRA, Dietrich rides the horses herself.
“Horses need a job all the time,” she said. “CATRA is great for people like me who don’t have the time, space, or finances to have a horse.”
It’s also a great place for people over 50 to volunteer.
“Almost all of our daytime volunteers are in their 60s. The place is pretty much run by older people.”
Besides helping to run the day-to-day operations of the therapeutic riding school, Dietrich is also on some of the nonprofit’s committees to raise funds throughout the year, including the motorcycle ride committee.
For six years, CATRA has held a 60-mile motorcycle ride in the Pennsylvania countryside in August. The popular fundraiser offers a musical group performance, silent auction, and door prizes following the ride.
Another fundraiser is Comedy, Arts and Sweets, held in November at Hollywood Casino’s John Henry Room, which looks out over the paddock where the horses get ready for the races. After watching the horse races, a comedian performs, donated art is auctioned off in a silent auction, and fancy sweets from local bakeries are auctioned off in a live auction.
The biggest fundraiser is CATRAthon, held each fall. CATRAthon includes a walk, a bike ride, and a critter parade of all types of farm animals dressed up in costume. There is also a mini-trail ride, silent auction, bake sale, and chicken barbecue.
While Dietrich can be found at CATRA every Wednesday from 8 a.m. to noon, she used to stay longer and would come other days as well when she started, the 61-year-old Dietrich said.
“Now that my husband is retired and I’m a grandma, my time is split up more. I’m an artist, too, and I’ve got to get that work done, as well.”
Dietrich is a renowned scrimshaw artist, selling her work worldwide. One of CATRA’s horses is Dietrich’s logo for her Wild Horse Studio.
Dietrich got her start at a rock and gem show in 1979.
“Mom and I saw some scrimshaw that I couldn’t afford. Mom said, ‘You can make that,’ and I did” after purchasing a starter scrimshaw kit.
She comes by her talent naturally. Her mother was a woodcarver and her father was a lapidary and silversmith.
Dietrich now sells her artwork mainly through commissioned pieces, as well as at knife and gun shows and occasionally an art show.
Each year, Dietrich enters a piece or two in the Mystic Scrimshaw competition in Mystic, Connecticut. She earned the Best Color Wildlife trophy in 2005.
Dietrich was even mentioned on page 12 of Tom Clancy’s Net Force book, Point of Impact. She also has contributed to a scrimshaw manual, Scrimshaw Techniques by Jim Stevens.
She has artwork at three galleries: Brain Vessel in Mechanicsburg; Mystic Scrimshanders in Wickford, Rhode Island; and Bowen’s Wharf Scrimshanders in Newport, Rhode Island.