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Equine-Assisted Therapies Help the Young Ride High

A young client at Bergen Equestrian at Overlook Park in Leonia.
A young client at Bergen Equestrian at Overlook Park in Leonia.

The late, great Winston Churchill famously said, “There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.”

Or the inside — and the outside — of a child.

Stacey Allen of Paramus has seen that good in her son, Oliver, 8, who has been involved in therapeutic horse riding since he was 3. He has grown in strength, coordination and balance – not to mention in confidence and joy when he gets to ride at Pony Power Therapies, a 13-acre farm in Mahwah that offers its clients of varying special needs a therapeutic experience amidst its bucolic environs.

“I never heard of it before,” said Ms. Allen, whose son Oliver had traditional therapies including speech, occupational and physical therapy for his motor, balance and low-tone issues.

“A friend from shul had a daughter using the therapeutic riding center and told me about Pony Power,” Ms. Allen said. “We started the program because we were looking for a different kind of therapy for Oliver. I was really excited because I love horses. They not only had a program for Oliver, but also for his older sister, Colette, who didn’t need therapy per se, but was able to participate as a sibling rider.”

Oliver has made tremendous progress using the adjunct therapy.

“Everything they do has helped him come together with his coordination,” she said. “Being on the horse is really great because you are working so many muscle groups at the same time and you have to coordinate your body. It teaches you to continue that in different areas of your life at different times. Oliver took to this right away. And it really gives him great confidence,” Ms. Allen said.

Another plus, she said, especially during the last several Covid months, “It has been the only place that we have gone out to. It’s such a serene place. We are able to take a breath there. It’s like a vacation.”

Oliver riding high and loving it at Pony Power Therapies in Mahwah.

When she began 20 years ago with a single horse in Paramus, Dana Spett, executive director of Pony Power Therapies and an equestrian herself, never thought her nonprofit would be what it is today, a veritable working farm that has offered more than 200 clients a week, pre-Covid, therapies with 22 horses and ponies.

“Our mission is to work with children and adults who need extra support to enhance their physical, social and emotional wellbeing,” she said.

A lifelong equestrian, Ms. Spett, a social worker by training who is getting her doctorate in social work at Rutgers University studying equine-assisted social work, discovered therapeutic horseback riding while researching alternative therapies for one of her daughters with mild special needs. Pony Power has been a member of the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH) International since its inception. Its instructors are either certified by PATH or working toward their certification.

Clients who come here, she said, may have a broad spectrum of developmental and physical disabilities, including but not limited to, autism spectrum disorder, ADHD, cerebral palsy, mental health challenges, visual and hearing impairments, traumatic brain injury, in addition to learning differences, anxiety, depression, trauma, loss, and life-limited or life-threatening diseases.

“We’re not in the business of fixing. It’s more of a quality of life as an adjunct therapy,” she said. What they learn does translate into the real world. For instance, a child with sensory issues who does not want to wear a hat knows that no helmet no riding. He gets used to the helmet and then begins to wear a hat.

“The first thing we do is make sure that the client is squarely on the back of that horse,” Ms. Spett said. “The movement of the horse is the same as the human gait. This has been scientifically proven. For instance,” she said, “if you’re someone who is sitting in a wheelchair all day, just imagine yourself stretching your hip and the angle is opening. You’re getting three-dimensional movement as if you’re walking. There is a feeling of a sense of freedom, a sense of empowerment,” said Ms. Spett.

“Putting someone on the back of a horse can be a very powerful treatment,” she said. “We’re just paying really good attention because that’s what horses do. They’re always aware of their surroundings and living in the moment. That’s what we’re doing and sharing with people how to do that.”

At Bergen Equestrian, located at Overpeck Park in Leonia, up to 150 horses are boarded at the stables. The facility offers much: riding lessons, summer camp and other programs, including equine therapy programs for children and adults with special or emotional needs.

A horse as a friend at Full Circle Equine Centered Activities.

The program called A Stable Life provides a variety of non-riding equine treatments focused on prevention, education and healing. It is facilitated by owner, Anna Gassib, who is certified in Gestalt Equine Coaching Method Certified Reiki Practitioner, Spiritual Equine Coach working with people of all walks of life on how to overcome any life challenges.

Sessions benefit individuals and families dealing with life challenges that may include anxiety, isolation, addiction, and loss of a loved one or a type of phobia resulting from PTSD. A Stable Life is all-inclusive, with specialty programs for children and adults with special needs. A Stable Life will design a program for any person in need of intervention and healing. The grace of a horse enriches the spirit, mind and heart resulting in true healing. Programs use the sensitive and intuitive nature of the horse to guild through customized sessions delivered in a fun and experiential learning environment.

A horse is more than a horse, of course.

“There’s nothing better than having a horse as a friend,” said Lynn Kuropatkin, the executive director of Full Circle Equine Centered Activities, now located in Rock Tavern, Orange County, New York but previously operated for a decade in Ramapo, Rockland County.

An intuitive, people-oriented intelligent horse is a good friend for many reasons. There is unconditional affection. They don’t judge you, and they are a friend that can teach you about yourself. “They can recognize vulnerability,” she said. If a child in a wheelchair is riding the horse, the horse “knows to walk very slowly. Horses respond to the energy of the individual.”

Full Circle Equine Centered Activities, is a non-profit organization whose mission is to improve the quality of life for people through innovative equine facilitated activities. Participants served include individuals with special needs that span cognitive, physical, adaptive, communication and emotional/social domains. The facility is a member of PATH International and services its clients through Equine Assisted Activities and Therapies (EAAT), which recognizes the quality-of-life issues facing persons with special needs. EAAT influence the whole person.

“The horse,” said Ms. Kuropatkin, “gives gifts to us.”

Building a young man’s self-esteem is paramount to the goal of Torah Trails, a program developed and run by Rabbi Ruvain Chait, a veteran Judaic studies educator, businessman, and Israeli-trained horseman who began riding when he was 8.

The program, which operates out of a ranch in Ramapo, Rockland County, is geared primarily to high school boys, but has included those as young as 12 and as old as 19.

Many of the boys and young men who join the Torah Trails intensive – an all-day program that could last up to six months – have hit a sort of bottom.  They have “zero self-esteem,” have trouble listening to authority; some have become involved in drugs or other illicit and unhealthy activities; others have issues and different problems. These boys and young men are hardly cowboys. Some have never even been on a horse, but through this program, where they train, communicate and care for the horse, transformation takes place, Rabbi Chait said.

This young man is riding and gaining confidence at Torah Trails in Ramapo.

“My program is unique,” he said. “No one really does what I do.”

Many of his students, lack trust – in anyone. “These are bright kids, but somehow, they’ve been knocked down,” Rabbi Chait said. “Some have just dropped out of school.”

“They get leadership skills through training the horse,” Rabbi Chait said. “They learn how to communicate and develop a love, understanding, and trust with the horse. They develop a respect. It happens faster with a horse, then it happens with people. They have felt and were made to feel like they couldn’t do anything. And then they have this accomplishment of being about to control this 1,500-pound animal.”

Yoni,* 24, was floundering when he was 18. One credit shy from graduation, apathy set in. He also got involved with an at-risk crowd. A mutual friend introduced him to Rabbi Chait and Torah Trails.

“I never met anyone like Rabbi Chait,” Yoni said, who began the program with one day. Then with one week. Then six months of Torah Trails. “Rabbi Chait was a great role model and a very positive influence. He is so relatable and so accomplished.”

One of the things Yoni said he gained was a real sense of “confidence” in his relationship with the horse. “I also learned patience and how to deal with other emotions. The way you begin to feel is, ‘I trained this horse. I built this relationship, and it (the horse) won’t let me down.’” building a real sense of trust. I experienced an extreme feeling of accomplishment.”

Yoni graduated from college and is getting a master’s degree in social work. “I had tremendous growth from this program. Looking back on my experience, I can say that it totally changed my life.”

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