One of the victims of a bus bombing in Hadera a few years ago was the mother of two small girls. After her death, the girls completely shut down, and wouldn’t even acknowledge that their mother had existed.
Their father brought them to the Israel National Therapeutic Riding Association, where Minna Heilpern, director of professional development at UJA of Northern New Jersey, has worked as a volunteer since ‘001. On one of her recent visits, Heilpern met the two girls, now 8 years old. She watched them feed Pocohantas, a horse that Heilpern had helped INTRA purchase in ’00’. As they brushed "Pokie’s" mane, one of the girls looked at Heilpern and said, "My mommy died, you know."
Above: Minna Heilpern spent the summer volunteering with INTRA. Below: Levona, a volunteer at INTRA in Israel, helps a young rider.
"They drew her out by [letting her take care] of Pokie," Heilpern said. "Feeding her, grooming her, and getting them to take care of Pokie, talking about Pokie being a mother. They were able to draw these children out so they could start to talk about their mother."
Heilpern spent this past summer volunteering as a walker for INTRA at the Hadassah Youth Village of Beit Hanai. Her job was to walk next to the horses, helping the rider maintain control and balance. Therapeutic riding, or hippotherapy, can help people of all ages with physical as well as emotional issues, Heilpern said.
"The connection between a person and a horse can be very profound," said Heilpern, noting that victims of terror and soldiers have come for help, as have paralysis victims and children with cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, and Asperger’s.
"The horse’s body and the human body move very much the same," Heilpern said. "When a human body is placed on a horse, it gets the human body moving. Even if it’s paralyzed, the body parts still move just by virtue of sitting on a horse. It helps strengthen back muscles and the spine."
The connection built between the horse and the human can have different ramifications for each rider, Heilpern said, from engendering joy and trust to teaching the rider how to care for the horse. "Deep bonds occur," she said.
Therapeutic riding is "phenomenal for physical disabilities," said Dana Spett, executive director of Pony Power. Spett and her family own Three Sisters Farm in Mahwah, Pony Power’s main site, which has ” horses. Pony Power has a second location at the Bergen Equestrian Center in Leonia. Altogether, Pony Power sees between 100 and ’00 clients per week.
Spett met Anita Shkedi, INTRA’s director, a few years ago at a conference, and the two centers have been affiliated with each other for four years.
Pony Power trains volunteers who plan to spend time in Israel so they can work at one of the 16 riding centers in the country. The center has programs set up with Solomon Schechter schools, The Frisch School, and other area schools, working with some ’00 volunteers per week.
Youngsters who plan to spend a year abroad can receive training and certification from Pony Power under the North American Riding for the Handicap Association, which oversees therapeutic riding programs across the world, including in Israel.
"Israelis come here and get certified as NARHA instructors," Spett said. "It’s a great thing for the kids planning to spend a year in Israel, so they can be helpful when they get there. If they do volunteer work here, they can start as soon as they go to Israel."
During one of her stints as a volunteer for INTRA, Heilpern saw a teenage boy with Asperger’s stand up in front of a group of American teenagers and talk about what it means to take care of the horses in the stables.
"He was somebody who couldn’t look anybody in the eye the year before," Heilpern said in amazement. "It starts on the tiniest level. It might just be that a child says ‘whoa’ and the horse stops. They understand the word ‘whoa’ means ‘stop,’ and they can pull on the reins. Or somebody who spent their life in a wheelchair and now for the first time is looking above or down for the first time. It’s an empowering feeling."