Susan Carr has always loved horses. She started riding as a girl, and now she’s taken that love and turned it into a job.
Carr is the founder and president of ELSA, or Experience Learning Support with Animals, a Calabasas-based nonprofit organization that uses horses as therapy animals. ELSA works with young adults with special needs to help them develop social skills and confidence.
“There’s a lot of research underscoring the real, biological benefits when we’re interacting with horses,” Carr said. “At the very root of it, I have learned in this work that it’s actually in our biology to have these types of human-animal interactions. There’s lots of potential out there for humans to benefit in terms of their mental health from interacting with horses, I believe.”
Carr was inspired to create ELSA after she started volunteering in 2008 at a Malibu ranch that offered equine-assisted therapy. A teacher from a school in Malibu brought her students, who were on the autism spectrum, to the ranch once a week for several weeks. Carr said seeing the impact that working with the horses had on the students was an incredible learning experience.
“When I saw the effects, and how the ranch setting creates a learning landscape, that really levels the playing field,” Carr said. “Whether you have autism or any disability, it’s all the same when we’re working together with horses. No one is focused on the disability; everyone’s focused on activities or bonding with the horse or learning a new skill.”
The ranch she volunteered at worked with Malibu rehab centers, and she didn’t want ELSA to interfere with their focus, so she contacted other ranches in the area and landed at one that would support her goal to work with special needs students.
ELSA, launched in 2009, offers several programs, but Carr said Ranch Skills is its signature class. It’s offered weekly and has 10 students, ages 18 to 22.
“We use the horses as the hub of interaction, and the entire ranch becomes a learning landscape. They come in once a week and learn how to care for a horse, how to care for a paddock, all the things you need to do in terms of feed and maintenance,” Carr said. “They also learn real horse skills—grooming, walking, how to handle a horse through obstacle courses.”
Carr said participants develop social skills through learning to care for the animals. The ranch provides a setting for socializing, but the horses provide a context for students to work with each other, volunteers and ranch hands.
Students can stay involved with the program after the course is completed—ELSA offers apprenticeships.
“Our first apprentice started in 2017. He’s a 20-year-old with autism but he has exceptional horse skills. After a year of doing ranch skills, we offered him a position,” Carr said. “He worked with us all summer then stayed with us, based on his availability.”
Some of ELSA’s all-volunteer staff are mental health professionals or former social workers. They do pre- and post-program assessments of their participants in order to understand the program’s benefits. Carr said several staffers, herself included, have certifications and training to work with horses as therapy animals.
ELSA has six horses, all rescues, for students to work with.Carr said horses are perceptive animals, ideally suited to ELSA’s purpose.
“Because the horse is sometimes a 1,000-pound animal that responds in real-time to the humans and activity and energy going on around them, they make very empowering partners,” Carr said. “They read our nonverbal language and require us to be totally present when we’re working with them. It’s a full-sensory experience, which is often important for the individuals with special needs.”
Though she founded ELSA nine years ago, Carr only recently found a permanent home for the program.
“We had always created relationships with local ranches and people who had horses and ranch space but were not using it in a way that served the community,” Carr said. “We’ve worked at over eight ranches, but we’re moving to a ranch that my husband and I will own.”
The program will shut down for a few weeks while Carr gets situated at the new facility, which is in Old Agoura.