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Meet Susan Carr of ELSA in Calabasas

Today we’d like to introduce you to Susan Carr.

Susan, can you briefly walk us through your story – how you started and how you got to where you are today.
I started ELSA in September 2009 after volunteering a few years at a Malibu ranch doing equine-assisted therapy with rescued race horses and teens in rehab. Right away I loved the experience, but it was the summer of 2008 when a teacher brought her students, a class of mid-schoolers diagnosed with autism, that I realized the powerful effect horses have on individuals with special needs. That teacher’s “action research study” revealed that based on the findings, “animal assisted therapy can, in some way, help reduce social anxiety and fears in individuals with social communication disorders”. Those words underscored what I experienced that summer, and so I moved in pursuit of 501(c)3 nonprofit status to build programs that unleash the positive effects of the human-animal bond.

Using my 25 years of business experience, I quickly put together a strategic plan, a diverse and talented board of directors and began reaching out to the autism community. Ironically, I had limited experience with autism and special needs community, I really had no idea how different running a nonprofit is than running in the corporate circles I had done so many times during my career. But I came equipped with a lifetime of loving horses, a business background and a ton of passion.

When we first began, our programs were focused on kids with autism in elementary and middle school and giving them a chance to thrive in the ranch setting. Today we are addressing the challenge of engaging young adults with autism and other special needs in a way that promotes their transition to independence and work-readiness as they age out of public education at 22, ready or not.

The name ELSA is originally inspired by the 1965 movie Born Free, a true story of a lion cub name Elsa and the love and trust she shared with her human family. As an acronym, the name ELSA stands for Experience Learning Support with Animals. Our clients are individuals with special needs. We align with LA’s public schools and vocational centers to teach teens and young adults job training skills in a ranch setting. We also offer private therapeutic riding. Today, we have six rescued horses, five young hens and one rooster that make up our animal staff. We rely on our trained and experienced volunteers that know how to handle the horses, keep an eye on safety and inspire our participants.

We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc. – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
Our horses are our heroes and centerpiece of our programs, but they are also expensive to keep! Our programs depend on our horses being healthy and good partners. From feed and board, to horseshoes and medical care, most of the money goes into supporting our horses and we are not able to have a paid “human” staff. We are however, very fortunate to have a huge stable of volunteers to work with our programs. Our signature program with the special education students from local public and private schools provides no revenue and so we must aggressively seek on-going funding from individuals, businesses and foundations.

So, as you know, we’re impressed with ELSA – tell our readers more, for example what you’re most proud of as a company and what sets you apart from others.
ELSA’s mission is about creating opportunities and connections for rescued horses and individuals with special needs in a rustic ranch setting. We build community, confidence and a future for some of the most vulnerable young adults with autism and other special needs as they age out of the public-school system.

ELSA serves children, teens & young adults with special needs through the benefits of human-animal interactions in the ranch environment with hands-on, equine-based programs. Since its 2009 founding, ELSA has served over 1,600 individuals with disabilities including autism & other special needs, ages 3 to 30, along with their family, teachers or coaches, from LA County communities. ELSA’s philosophy and approach are driven by the impact experienced by individuals with special needs as they interact with horses. Bonding between horse & human facilitates an array of beneficial experiences & skills.

Each ELSA horse has his story. Whether old and retired, neglected, injured & overused, it doesn’t matter to us. We give them new jobs, new lives, new homes, new spirit. What they give in return is priceless. ELSA horses empower our participants as well as the volunteers and ranch guests and provide meaningful connections that resonate deeply.

ELSA’s signature program, RANCH SKILLS, serves young adults with autism and other special needs ages 18-22 to promote skills associated with ranch maintenance and horse handling and to foster social skills, peer interaction, a sense of accomplishment, self-confidence, sensory awareness, flexibility, empathy and more.

With the ranch as a centerpiece and horses as a hub of interactions, clients are given the opportunity to thrive physically and emotionally in a work environment where communities merge: program participants, ELSA volunteers, horse professionals, and ranch management.

We are proud of our program results for the Ranch Skills program because we have conducted pre- and post- program assessments to really understand the impact we are making on everyone. In all circumstances, the impact on the participants is positive in terms of fostering social skills, peer interactions, building resilience, taking initiative, experiencing a sense of accomplishment, boosting self-confidence, breaking down barriers and boundaries and increasing sensory awareness. Ultimately, we are most proud of the success that we see in each individual and the joy on their faces made possible through the human-animal bond in our rustic ranch setting.

So, what’s next? Any big plans?
We envision our community growing to include a paid APPRENTICESHIP program, to employ those students who have successfully completed ELSA’s Ranch Skills program. We are dedicated to facilitating the transition of these exceptional individuals as they face the challenges of independence.

Based on the success we’ve seen with the human-animal interactions and bonding using horses and farm animals in the ranch setting, we hope to expand our client base to include at-risk youth and veterans.


  • Therapeutic Riding – Private lesson $65.00
  • Ranch Field Trips / 12-15 students / 2 hours / $350

Contact Info:

Getting in touch: VoyageLA is built on recommendations from the community; it’s how we uncover hidden gems, so if you know someone who deserves recognition please let us know here.


  1. Carolyn Lettween

    February 20, 2018 at 15:48

    We are so proud of you and the impact you have had with ELSA.
    Love, Mom and Dad

  2. Lynda Fox

    February 24, 2018 at 23:19

    What a wonderful thing you’re doing. You should be proud of all you’ve accomplished, and I can see you’ve only just begun.

  3. Bobbye Gorenberg

    February 25, 2018 at 00:34

    Dear Susan,

    What a wonderful program. As I have a granddaughter with autism whose life has been enriched by horses. She has been a volunteer helping with local horse maintenance. Thank You for the work you do.


  4. Marty Waldinger

    February 25, 2018 at 00:48

    You are a talented and devoted person who has made a difference. We need more people like you. Good luck.
    Marty and Chris

  5. Sandy Campion

    February 25, 2018 at 04:17

    What a wonderful program you have developed. Good luck with your future plans.

  6. Chris Guardino

    February 25, 2018 at 05:11

    What a beautiful vision ! Our world will benefit from this philanthropic leader! Let’s all support them!!

  7. Patricia Bennett

    February 25, 2018 at 06:11

    I am so touched by this amazing program and the lovely lady who dreamed it and made it happen! I pray you have continued success touching the lives of horses and humans who are, too often, neglected and unacknowledged. Awesome purpose!

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