Pet Tales: Joy ride: It takes a special horse to make Mark's Smile

Harley has been loved by many people in his 21 years. The red roan Appaloosa is gentle and patient with beginners, including very young children and others afraid to sit up high, astride a big horse. 

Two ponies and nine horses are Harley’s stablemates at the Storm Harbor Equestrian Center at Slippery Rock University in Butler County. Each week they provide therapeutic rides for 100 children and adults with special needs. 

Harley had been owned and loved by Mark A. Baldinger, who loved animals and loved participating in Special Olympics. Riding Harley was “my dream come true,” he told family and friends.

Mr. Baldinger was only 33 when he died Sept. 13, 2007. His family donated Harley to Stone Harbor “so Mark’s love for Harley can be seen in the smiles of other children,” his sister, Lisa LaMolinare, wrote in a brochure about the fund they established in his memory.

Despite learning and health limitations, Mr. Baldinger never stopped “living and laughing every minute,” the brochure says. Since his infectious smile touched everyone who met him, the Mark A. Baldinger Memorial Fund established in 2009 is more generally known as “Mark’s Smile.”   

Mark’s Smile provides scholarships for the $20-per-half-hour rides at Storm Harbor Equestrian Center. Financial assistance is provided to many of the riders, whose disabilities are physical, emotional, cognitive or social.

The five mares and seven geldings, who range in age from 15 to 33, have all been donated. I’ve never seen such happy horses. They are groomed and petted and fussed over by hundreds of volunteers from nearby communities and from the university. Some of the students get academic course credit; the horse program is linked to the recreational therapy major and other health-related courses.

Volunteers muck out the stalls in the cleanest horse barn I’ve ever visited. At night the horses are turned out into pastures. Posted outside the stall of each one is a short biography with special instructions and information.

Harley is “very outgoing, loves to goof around, loves candy treats. He is blind in his right eye so talk to him when your are on that side to let him know you are there.” 

Harley has moon blindness, an inflammatory disease that is the leading cause of blindness in horses. Riders with vision impairments have a special affection for Harley, said Anthony Rock, a graduate student in school counseling.

Here’s some information on the others: 

Liver, 32, is a palomino-colored Haflinger pony mare. Her sweet, affectionate personality makes her everybody’s favorite, a barn worker told me. “Her favorite treat is animal crackers. Very easy to lead and tack. Great for beginners.”

Bud, 25, is a Haflinger/Shetland pony cross and at 720 pounds is the smallest equine in the barn. Since he can be a little grumpy in his stall, more experienced workers and volunteers handle him.

Chunkey, 33, is the oldest and biggest (1,255 pounds). Though the brown Percheron/thoroughbred cross has “very few teeth, he still loves to be ridden.” 

Kayty, 21, is a grey Arabian/mustang mix donated by a former student. She is a “good jumper.” Kayty and Zippy, 21, a chestnut quarter horse, have competed in the Special Olympics summer games at Penn State.

A prior owner rescued Socks, a 15-year-old chestnut thoroughbred, from the track after his racing career was over. He’s a great jumper who is ridden in competition by the university’s equestrian team.  

Annie, 25, a chestnut quarter horse, “loves being scratched all over.” Her former owner had physical disabilities.

Maddie, 22, is a chestnut warmblood who is favored by more experienced riders because she is “high-energy and alert, a great jumper who loves to go fast.” 

Horses that are especially good with beginners include Rusty, 23, a chestnut Appaloosa; a “slow and cautious” red dun Paso Fino named Abbey; and Black Jack, 26, a leggy black quarter horse.

It takes a special horse to provide what the university calls “equine-assisted activities,” said Carolyn Rizza  of Liberty, Mercer County. She’s the chair of Storm Harbor’s advisory board. She and her husband, Paul, both retired Slippery Rock professors, provided  much of the money to build  the barn in 2006  and operate the program.

“Therapy horses have to be kind and gentle and patient with everyone,” Mrs. Rizza said. “A lot of the riders, because of their disabilities, make random movements and noises” that would spook most horses.

Mrs. Rizza has owned and loved horses since she was 11. At 73, she is still riding. The equestrian center is named in honor of one of her favorite horses, Storm Harbor.

“Stormer was not a caregiver. He would not have been good in this program,” she said with a chuckle.

The spirited Percheron/thoroughbred cross loved to jump and “wanted to do what he wanted to do and he did not care if you were still on his back or not.”

He died in 2015 at the age of 28 and is memorialized on a mural painted in the indoor riding arena.

Donations of time, money and horse equipment are always needed. Go to or call 724-738-4010 for information. Donations to the Mark’s Smile memorial fund can be mailed to 100 Old Main, 1 Morrow Way, Slippery Rock, Pa. 16057.

NOTE: This story has been updated from the original to correct the spelling of Mrs. Rizza’s first name.

Linda Wilson Fuoco: or 412-263-3064 or on Facebook.