Urban Cowbory Primary

The kids are ready to ride and the volunteers are primed to support them as they hit the trail together on a typical Sunday morning at the Equestrian Therapy Co-Op. Sonny Mone, foreground, runs the program in Simi Valley. Photo by Sylvie Belmond

Most Saturday nights Sonny Mone can be found playing guitar and singing for a live audience in one of several area restaurants or clubs. But come Sunday morning, he’s tending to the horses in his charge on the Brandeis University ranch, prepping them to carry disabled riders through the hills of Simi Valley.

Written by Sylvie Belmond

A singer, songwriter and musician who performed with the well-known band Crazy Horse, Sonny Mone is also a gifted horseman who enjoys helping people with special needs. But he’s no singing cowboy.

“It’s almost as if he has two personalities. His character and ambitions are the same, but he doesn’t like to mix the two,” says Cindy Julian, his wife of 34 years.

Working on a 3,000-acre ranch in the hills above Simi Valley during the day and playing music at local venues by night, Sonny, 55, said he’s living the dream.

“I have probably two of the best jobs in the world.”

The ranch is quaint and peaceful as volunteers prepare the horses for a riding session on a recent Sunday morning. The sounds of peacocks, chickens and goats resonate as Sonny checks the horses to make sure they’re mellow and ready to work.

While he is a capable vocalist and nimble guitarist, Sonny said he found his life’s purpose working with horses.

Urban Cowboy Playing Guitar

Photo by Cindy Julian

“I’m no Roy Rogers or horse whisperer, just a guy who knows how to keep kids and horses safe. It’s all about the kids for me,” says Sonny, who runs an equestrian program, teaching horsemanship to children and adults with special needs.

“Art is meaningful, but to see direct results, little kids and horses—it’s really fulfilled things for me. There is just something about a horse; you can’t walk by a horse without smiling. That’s just the way it is,” Sonny says.

Located on the grounds of the American Jewish University’s Brandeis-Bardin Campus, the Equestrian Therapy Co-Op combines riding with concepts of physical and occupational therapy.

The techniques allow riders to use their muscles and minds to maintain balance and control of the horse while improving their coordination, muscle strength, focus, motor skills and
self-confidence.

Sonny works with volunteers and specially trained horses to create an opportunity for riders to interact with nature while improving their physical and mental abilities.

As barn manager for the ranch, he also leads trail rides for the Brandeis’ summer camps and other university events.

The musician

Sonny started developing his songwriting and playing style performing in the New England club and coffeehouse circuit.
He was in his mid-20s when he met the members of Crazy Horse and was lead singer for the band when they weren’t performing with Neil Young.
“It was a slow break, no hit songs, but we toured and made some money. As a writer and artist, it was a once-in-a lifetime experience. There are a lot of musicians who would give anything to play with those guys. They’re the original real deal. What I learned from them, the experience and all that, you couldn’t pay for,” Sonny says.
The classic rock artist also develops music for film and television and has worked in the studio with artists from diverse bands such as Matt Malley, formerly of Counting Crows, and Victor Bisetti from Los Lobos. The trio still performs under the name RainRider.
The band mostly performs at corporate and private events. Sonny also does regular solo acoustic gigs at local venues such as Sagebrush Cantina in Calabasas and Rock & Roll Pizza in Moorpark.

From music to horses

Sonny became involved with equestrian therapy in the early 1990s when he met Jacques Fouchaux, a Frenchman who pioneered the therapeutic horseback riding techniques for disabled kids.
Sonny organized a benefit concert for Fouchaux to help rebuild a barn that had been destroyed by a fire. Soon he and his wife began volunteering for Fouchaux’s Institute of Equestrian Therapy. A year later Sonny became president of the charity. The program moved to Brandeis University in 2006 and closed in 2009 when Fouchaux retired.
In addition to helping Fouchaux with day-to-day activities, Sonny took on the responsibility for the horses at Brandeis so they could stay on the property. In 2010, he opened his own co-op to resume the therapeutic riding program.
“It’s a win-win for everybody. The parents want their children to ride, the volunteers do the work and they get an opportunity to ride,” Sonny says. Fees paid by parents along with donations cover liability insurance and feed for the animals.
The program is enriching not only for the disabled riders but also for the volunteers who assist them during the sessions.
“Sonny runs the whole show. He’s selfless, humble and very welcoming to everyone who wants to volunteer and be a part of the program,” says Beth Tulk of Simi Valley, who has been volunteering with the co-op for about four years. “He’s a gentle and easy going guy . . . gifted with the horses, talented with the volunteers and amazing with the kids.”
Sarah Hedge, a builder with the Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 5 in Port Hueneme, also appreciates Sonny’s commitment and kind heart. Sonny and his band performed for her battalion earlier this summer.
Erica Sheppard, whose daughter, Abby, rides at the ranch, says Sonny is passionate and sincere.
“He really cares about the kids and they feel safe with him. He’s authentic and the kids can tell.”

Equestrian Therapy Co-Op welcomes new volunteers. For more information, visit www.equestriantherapy.net.