Horses used to provide riding lessons at Danada Equestrian Center in Wheaton will be retrained to address behavioral problems with the animals.
DuPage County Forest Preserve commissioners on Tuesday agreed to hire On Eagle's Wings Equine Center in Kirkland to retrain eight of Danada's 16 lesson horses before the riding program at the district-owned center resumes in May.
Five other horses will be trained later. The last three horses might be permanently removed from the riding program.
Tuesday's decision came after Marie Hoffman, who owns and operates On Eagle's Wings, did a behavior assessment of the 16 horses as part of an ongoing effort by the district to improve the operation and management of Danada.
Last month, Hoffman told forest preserve commissioners that the behavior of the lesson horses must be improved.
According to Hoffman, there were instances where horses would bite and kick each other and some of the animals showed signs of aggression toward their human handlers. The horses learned most of the bad behavior from inconsistent training methods, according to Hoffman.
Hoffman said the issues with most of the horses can be fixed if they spend up to three months at her facility getting retrained.
Commissioner Shannon Burns, who last year investigated conditions at Danada, said her own probe found the facility needed "some kind of consistent training" for the horses.
"We have to have a consistent lesson plan, a consistent method of working with the horses," Burns said, "and a consistent set of training and expectations that the volunteers be trained."
As part of the contract approved on Tuesday, representatives from On Eagle's Wings will hold a meeting with volunteers who care for Danada's horses. The experts also will offer a series of mandatory horse clinics to train the volunteers and forest preserve staff.
Hoffman has said the sessions are needed to ensure everyone is handling the horses in the same way. Volunteers must use the same tools to reinforce the lessons the horses are going to receive, she added.
"Once everyone is trained and we have ongoing training programs in place, my expectation is that it will open more opportunity for volunteers to work with the horses and ride the horses," Burns said.
The total cost to retrain the horses depends on how long the process takes. Officials said any horses that progress faster will be returned to Danada.
On Eagle's Wings will charge a monthly fee of $960 per horse to keep and train the animals at its facility.
As for the training the Danada volunteers and staff will receive, the cost for the district won't exceed $6,000.
Still, one resident voiced concern about the contract.
Mary Ann Devitt said she believes the board should have postponed retraining the horses until after a new site manager for Danada is hired. She also said the retraining should happen at Danada.
Commissioner Mary Lou Wehrli, however, said the district can't afford to wait. "The horses every day are living and breathing and getting worse at what their bad habits are," she said.
If the district doesn't get the training now, Wehrli said, "We won't have the ability to see the horses receive the continuity they deserve."