COTO DE CAZA – There’s a new horse on the block at the Coto Equestrian Center, one that can jump, gallop and trot for hours on end, and never gets tired.
Dante Maximus, a black motorized horse with surprisingly lifelike movements, arrived at Coto in March.
While the horse simulator was originally developed as a conditioning tool for horseback riders, Dante has proven himself to be no one-trick pony. His rhythmic motions have found another use at the center: as a therapeutic exercise tool for the disabled.
When Tustin resident Jackie Kerr, 56, began riding the horse simulator seven weeks ago, she didn’t expect to see much improvement in her case of multiple sclerosis. Kerr, who uses a wheelchair, hasn’t been able to bend her right arm for years and experiences recurring pain in her hip area.
But after about 20 sessions on Dante Maximus, she’s able to move her arm again and accomplish a task most take for granted – washing her hair with two hands. The tightness she once felt in her hips has also vanished.
“The pain has been mitigated completely after doing this,” Kerr said.
Barbro Ask-Upmark, the United States Dressage Federation gold, silver and bronze medal winning trainer who brought the simulator to Coto, got to witness Kerr’s transformation.
“The improvement was completely mind-blowing,” Ask-Upmark said. “It’s an amazing tool for disabilities.”
While the notion of a motorized horse may bring to mind the bucking mechanical bulls found at bars and rodeos, make no mistake, Dante is much more sophisticated.
The $120,000 robotic horse is the most advanced in a line of equine simulators made by British company Racewood, the only company in the world that makes motorized horses. Besides jumping, it can also perform advanced dressage moves such as piaffe and passage, pirouette, half pass and shoulder in.
The simulator is engineered with hydraulics that allow for a full range of motion, making its movements appear almost as natural as those of a real horse. When Dante “wakes up” at the push of a button, he moves his head from side to side, as if stretching imaginary muscles.
The motorized horse even neighs when the rider holds the reigns too loose.
Although Dante Maximus is fixed to a platform, three screens in front of the rider display an animated grassy field or wooded path, which shifts along with the horse’s movements. One screen displays information from pressure sensors in the reins, stirrup, neck, saddle and legs of the horse that reveal how crooked or balanced the rider is.
“You can jump forever until you feel 100 percent secure,” Ask-Upmark said.
Practicing on horse simulators doesn’t just benefit riders, but makes for happier horses too. When riders can practice for hours on the simulator, their horses are better rested and are less likely to learn bad behaviors from novice riders.
“It’s sometimes pretty scary seeing how people jump and ride on horses,” Ask-Upmark said. “It’s not a coincidence that horses get injured.”
Dante Maximus comes to Coto amid plans for more than $1.5 million in enhancements to the Equestrian Center. Director Signe Radovich says the addition of Dante Maximus has put them on the map as a premier equine destination.
“It’s brought a lot of notoriety because there are so few (horse simulators) in the country,” Radovich said.
Ask-Upmark, who has worked with Racewood over the past several years to develop the simulators, says they’re still a rarity outside of the United Kingdom and Europe. She has sold seven simulators on the West Coast of the United States and three in Canada.
At Coto, riders of all ages and levels use the simulator, including those who have fallen off their horses.
“It’s a great way to get back in the saddle and overcome fear,” Ask-Upmark said.
For Kerr, simply getting on the horse for the first time, which requires Ask-Upmark to push her up onto the saddle, was an act of courage. Her next goal is to get back to walking with a walker, something she hasn’t been able to do in years.
“I couldn’t have done this without her (Ask-Upmark) and Dante,” Kerr said.