In the roughly two years that Sandra Dietter has owned the Nightingale Ranch, the equine boarding and riding facility has made quite a mark.
The stalls are full, and the ranch, with its spray of brown-eyed Susans planted near an elegant dark green sign, offers both riding and therapeutic riding lessons. The ranch also serves as the equestrian practice site for the North Haven athletes who participate in the Special Olympics of Connecticut (SOCT).
“Just the way [Dietter] works with the horses and the athletes, it’s just wonderful,” said Stephanie Cerrato, who serves as the local coordinator for SOCT. “It was magical. The children were adamant. They had
to be at practice,” she said of the eight weeks of training the North Haven
Special Olympians underwent before the town’s first invitational tournament last summer.
Dietter herself concedes that the ranch was in need of work when she bought it in 2010. “It took us forever to clean it up,” she said of a property that had gained notoriety when, as the Rambling Ranch and under a previous owner, the state seized its animals in late 2009, citing abuse. “We didn’t have our horses come in until April of 2011.”
Dietter, an avid rider since the age of 10 whose training included the intricate sport of dressage, said she gave the ranch her maiden name to honor her father. “He was the one who gave me the most unconditional love,” she said.
A native of Rhode Island, she owned her first horses when she gave trail rides to make money during her years at the University of Rhode Island. After receiving her degree in human development and family studies with a minor in psychology and also a teaching certificate, she entered the
field of special education. There, she worked with abused and neglected boys ages four to eight, taking them riding as a field trip.
“Some of the kids really took to it,” she said. “Some of them were terrified. But for some it was overwhelming—they absolutely loved it.”
After she and her husband Robert, who owns Dietter’s Water Gardens, moved to Connecticut, she ran a day care center from her home and also taught in public school.
“When Rambling Ranch was closed I saw this teeny, tiny ‘for sale’ sign [outside the property],” she said. “I felt in my gut, 'I need to make this call.'”
Once open, Dietter acknowledged that, while she offers regular riding lessons, she has always planned to gear her ranch toward therapeutic riding.
“They grow to love their horse,” she said of the physically and emotionally
challenged riders who come to the ranch. “Sometime we do have to switch them onto another horse. They form a special bond with that horse. There are some kids that say, ‘Am I riding Jesse today’?,” said Dietter, referring to a 21-year-old chestnut gelding which she had paired with autistic children before opening the ranch. “Then we have non-verbals. They look at the horse, and they know it’s not the right horse. Their eye movements tell us.”
Dietter, who herself is certified by the Colorado-based Professional Association ofTherapeutic Horsemanship International or PATH, said she is aware that some horses will never function well in therapeutic riding.
“They are too high strung,” she said.
Still, when a horse and rider achieve a good fit, the rider not only reaps the emotional reward of the bond but also gains a sense of motion—an experience that matters especially to riders suffering from paralysis.
Dietter thought of High Hopes, a therapeutic riding center in Old Lyme that she termed phenomenal.
“I love High Hopes,” she said. “I think I’m like a mini-version—like a hidden, little gem.”
The address of the Nightingale Ranch is 130 Spring Road.