To ensure the safety of residents taking horse-riding lessons at Danada Equestrian Center, an expert is recommending the Wheaton facility's horses -- and the staff members and volunteers who care for them -- be retrained.
It's advice DuPage County Forest Preserve commissioners are expected to implement before the riding program at the district-owned center resumes in May.
Marie Hoffman, who owns and operates On Eagles Wings Equine Center in Kirkland, did a behavior assessment of the 16 lesson horses as part of an ongoing effort by the district to improve the operation and management of Danada.
On Tuesday, Hoffman told forest preserve commissioners Danada is "a great facility" that's capable of someday supporting itself financially with its mix of educational and recreational equestrian activities.
But first, she said, the behavior of the lesson horses must be improved.
"The current horses I went to look at were not safe," Hoffman said. She said she saw instances where horses would bite and kick each other and some of the animals showed signs of aggression toward their human handlers.
Hoffman said the horses learned most of the bad behavior from inconsistent training methods.
"There have been too many people handling them that are not using the same method," she said. "The horses finally are just like, 'I'm done. Just stay away. I don't want to do this.'"
As a result, the horses have reached a point where they are confused and "don't like their jobs," according to Hoffman.
"They are the core of your program," she said. "If you don't have core good school horses, you don't have a program."
Still, she said, the issues with the horses can be fixed. She's recommending eight of the horses be moved to her facility for up to three months of retraining. Five other horses would become inactive until they could be trained later. And the last three horses would be permanently removed from the riding program.
Hoffman also wants volunteers at Danada to be required to participate in mandatory clinics.
"Establish a consistent training method so everybody is handling these horses in the same way," she said, adding the volunteers must use the same tools to reinforce the lessons the horses are going to receive.
Hoffman also discovered that only "one or two" of the saddles she tried at Danada fit the horses properly. The other saddles pinched the horses.
"Go for a walk through the forest for a couple of hours with shoes that don't fit," Hoffman said. "Pretty soon, you're kind of cranky. And that's going on with these horses."
To address the problem, Hoffman is recommending the district buy new saddles and watch the weight of some of the horses.
Forest preserve commissioners next week are expected to talk about Hoffman's recommendations and decide how they want to proceed.
Commissioner Shannon Burns said after Tuesday's meeting that she expects the board to implement the suggestions in Hoffman's report.
"It's going to give us exactly what we need," Burns said. "By this time next year, we're going to have a program that is what Marie said it can be. It's going to be a really good program that's good for the public."