The Therapeutic Power of Horses: Paula Del Giudice's Unique Career

by Jonah Dratfield

Calling Paula Del Giudice a renaissance woman is an understatement. She is not only a painter, photographer and writer, but an executive director of a non-profit and “something of a turnaround expert.” She not only has innumerable talents, but the discipline and vision to put these talents to meaningful uses. Arts Extension Service courses allowed her to solidify and expand her already considerable skills, and to apply them to a host of projects.

Paula currently works as the Executive Director at Little Bit Therapeutic Riding Center in Redmond, Washington, a center dedicated to improving the bodies, minds, and spirits of children and adults with disabilities through equine-assisted therapy. The program strives to provide life-changing physical benefits, as well as to promote confidence and independence. “We have over one hundred different diagnoses here,” says Paula. “These range from conditions like multiple sclerosis to autism to Down syndrome to cerebral palsy. We also have adults who’ve suffered strokes. We have two types of riding. One is therapeutic riding, where a patient will ride a horse and be assisted by a physical therapist, speech therapist, or occupational therapist; and the other is adaptive riding - which is more recreational, but still provides the same benefits for a rider that therapy sessions do.”

Although Paula initially wanted to be a graphic artist, the university she attended had no degree program in graphic arts. So, she pursued a degree in Business Management and Marketing instead. After graduating, she became a freelance writer and photographer for several outdoor publications. She soon moved to working with a number of national level environmental non-profit organizations, becoming the first woman chair of the National Wildlife Federation’s Board of Directors.

Paula’s job today might seem like a departure from her interest in the arts, but she has ridden horses since she was young. “I started riding as a child and continued into my twenties," she says. "And then I put horses on the backburner, because they’re awfully big expensive critters to have. I rekindled my love for horses when I ended up coming here.” Not only does Paula love horses, she sees their therapeutic power as being similar to that of art and music. In her eyes, the rhythmic movement that a rider engages with on horseback is not dissimilar to the rhythmic propulsion music provides. “The rhythm and the connection to the horse is very similar to what people find in music,” says Paula. “In fact, I remember seeing a video clip of a man with Parkinson’s disease, who, when the music went on, was able to find his gait and able to walk.”

Paula decided to enroll in an AES course because she wanted to break out of the environmental sector. “I was slotted as an environmental non-profit manager and could never really break out of the sector,” says Paula. "I applied for jobs but wouldn’t get looked at because all of my experience had been in environmental non-profits.” Paula believed that getting a Core Certificate in Arts Management would allow her to become involved in the arts sector. She wanted to get back to the important things in her life that spoke to the core of who she was.

Although she had had no formal training in nonprofit management prior to AES, she had a lot of on the job experience from working in the environmental nonprofit field. In AES courses, she filled in gaps in her knowledge and gained strong foundational skills in a variety of different subjects applicable to non-profit organizations in any sector; including grant writing and strategic planning. In fact, her Strategic Planning course culminated in her drafting a strategic plan for the Northwest Watercolor Society, considered by some to be one of the most prominent watercolor societies in North America.

While enrolled in AES courses, Paula saw the job opening at Little Bit. Although she believed it was outside of the environmental sector, the hiring manager actually encouraged the Board of Directors to consider candidates, such as Paula, from diverse work experience in different sectors. Working at Little Bit and volunteering for arts nonprofits, she continued to pursue her education. The structure of AES courses allowed her to do so without putting her life on hold. “I was working full time and taking classes and volunteering for a non-profit,” says Paula. “The flexibility of the courses and instructors at AES really helped me with juggling those demands.”

Paula has only one course left to complete her Core Certificate in Arts Management. While she intends to complete her certificate in the near future, she already uses the skills she has acquired every day. And, for her, there is no such thing as a typical day. At any given moment, she may be working on human resources policies, budgeting, or helping develop the Board of Directors. “It’s varied,” says Paula. “It’s all over the place.” She describes her current work as her "dream job" because it incorporates her passion, variety of experience, and skills developed both in the field and in the classroom. “I really love this place and this job,” says Paula. “It’s really fabulous. It really is a dream job, because it includes working with horses and draws on my various experiences and skills - and it is never boring!"