Trainers once shook tambourines at the dark bay quarter horse, pelted him with tennis balls, and lit firecrackers nearby to desensitize him to environmental stressors. He plowed on to trot out of billowing smoke, over mattresses meant to test sure-footedness and through a training prop dubbed the “car wash” — a forest of streamers and foam pool noodles that bumped willy-nilly against him, nose to tail.

Because “Ozzie” tolerated all of it well, he worked for six years under mounted law enforcement with the Golden-based Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office, said John Schmidt, the veteran Colorado POST certified deputy who rode him through Denver Broncos crowds gathered outside the then-Mile High Stadium and during the 2008 Democratic National Convention at Denver’s Pepsi Center.

When Schmidt retired and donated the horse in 2013 to Longmont’s Colorado Therapeutic Riding Center, Ozzie, now 22, quickly earned a reputation with staff and volunteers there for being bombproof.

About 50 of the center’s clients with special needs have climbed aboard the gelding for therapy since then. But Gracie Koontz, a developmentally delayed high school sophomore diagnosed in fifth grade with epilepsy, considers him her sweetheart for the way he holds steady when seizures strike her.

“We have 34 horses … and Ozzie is still our only pick for her,” Lindsey Moloznik, the center’s barn manager, said. “… These aren’t pony rides. We need to take lots of precautions. But everyone is usually so focused on what someone with disabilities can’t do. With Ozzie, we can focus on what Grace can do.”

Though the center cherry picks quiet horses well-suited for people with special needs, they still might spook given the unexpected drama seizures can produce, she explained.

Ozzie, a horse who weighs nearly 1,200 pounds and stands 15 hands high, stops and waits out seizures with Grace — a 4-feet, 4-inch tall girl who weighs just 88 pounds.

Jeanine Koontz said that her daughter gets no advance warning before these events — usually atonic seizures called “drop attacks” for the way they cause Grace, 15, to go limp.

“And the number of seizures is so random,” Koontz added. “Zero on Monday, but she had seven Wednesday. Two weeks ago she had 30 in one day and had to go to the hospital.”

For this reason, Ozzie — a horse Grace calls “Oz Man” and “Dude” — makes a perfect therapeutic match for her.

With the support of volunteers walking on either side of them to catch her if she falls, Ozzie helps Grace key into teamwork while building core strength as they weave around orange traffic cones in the ring. Meanwhile, Grace practices following multistep directions from the therapist standing nearby.

“You can peddle on a bike to get stronger, but doing therapy on cold metal equipment can’t give you the same sense of teamwork as it does on a warm, living horse,” said Adam Daurio, Director of Administration & Outreach at the Temple Grandin Equine Center at Colorado State University at Fort Collins. “There is now ample research to show that this therapy strategy is no longer experimental. We call it equine assisted activity and therapy, and the benefits are physical, cognitive, psychological, emotional, and social.”

When Grace dismounts after her lesson, one of her volunteer side walkers — Charolette Engelhard, also 15, of Frederick — often holds her hand to offer physical, emotional and social support as they make their way to the tack room.

But Ozzie, more than anything else, keeps Grace looking forward to her weekly 3:15 p.m. to 4 p.m. therapy appointment. For the past 3½ years, only a seizure event could derail mother and daughter from the path they drive every Monday to the center from their Westminster home.

Schmidt, 70, called Ozzie a “true partner” during their time together on duty for the sheriff.

But the horse still has a special place in his heart for the playfulness he brought to work, too.

“In crowds, Ozzie liked to nibble on straw hats and cotton candy,” the Arvada resident said, chuckling.

Grace appreciates Ozzie in his golden years for similar reasons.

Most Monday nights she calls her maternal grandma in Kansas giddy with news about their latest date.

“Ozzie is special to me because he listens to me when I steer him to the right or to the left,” Grace said. “I say, ‘Chop, chop!’ to him when he is a sleepy head and ‘Walk on, Dude.'”

Pam Mellskog can be reached at or at 303-746-0942.

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