Not just horsin’ around

Not just horsin’ around

Local woman urges ponying up for Israel therapy program

Children start a therapy session at the Israel National Therapeutic Riding Association near Netanya.

A young Israeli woman was suffering from severe anxiety attacks, rapidly losing weight and hair. Then her husband brought her to the Israel National Therapeutic Riding Association (INTRA) near the coastal city of Netanya.

A month later, after riding therapy horse Pocahantas (Pokey for short) twice a week, she has regained a bit of weight and, most important, a smile.

This was exactly the kind of situation for which Teaneck resident Minna Heilpern donated Pokey to INTRA about 10 years ago. Now head of the fundraising arm Friends of INTRA (, Heilpern is among organizers of a benefit scheduled for Nov. 16, 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. at the Spanish Benevolent Society in Manhattan.

For $75, supporters of INTRA will be treated to a flamenco performance and a silent auction, with prizes including two El Al tickets to Israel, four Islanders tickets, and a two-night stay at the Fern Hall Inn in Pennsylvania.

“Our goal is to raise $50,000 to sponsor five of INTRA’s 20 magnificent therapy horses for a year,” said Heilpern. The animals need special care and training to provide therapeutic riding for individuals with varying degrees of challenges, ranging from autism and post-traumatic stress disorders to youth at risk, wounded soldiers, and survivors of terrorist attacks.

INTRA Director Anita Shkedi explained that each horse has about a 10-year working life, during which it typically gives 25 rides per week.

There is much to show for these costly efforts. Since Shkedi and her husband Giora founded INTRA in 2000, they have helped hundreds of individuals with a wide variety of physical, neurological, and emotional difficulties.

A native of England with degrees in education, preventive medicine, nursing, and therapeutic horseback riding, Anita Shkedi introduced therapeutic riding to Israel in 1985 and founded a course in therapeutic riding at Israel’s Wingate Institute for Physical Education and Sports. She has worked with TROT (Therapeutic Rehabilitation of Tucson) to start its Horses for Heroes program for veterans wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“For small children age 3 and up with severe physical disabilities or autism, it helps with development and communication skills, mobility, and movement,” she said. “Israel’s national health maintenance organizations refer children with emotional problems, learning problems, ADHD, or anxiety disorders. Here they build self-confidence and become motivated. We can teach them to perform tasks with the horse that they can carry over into other environments, including life skills that help them overcome behavioral or communication problems.”

INTRA worked with the Israeli Ministry of Education to establish a matriculation course in equine studies for students, including teens with a background of domestic violence. “This program has to be supported by donations because a few of the students don’t pay anything and others pay a tiny part of the actual cost,” she said.

Last year, INTRA began working with army veterans suffering from symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

“They came to us in a very distressed state; some hadn’t left their house in 10 years,” Shkedi said. “They discover that the horse is a good ‘listener’ and gives unconditional love, so they communicate well with the horse, and you see the tension being released. Huge changes take place. Of 11 veterans, two are back at work. For the others, we’ve reduced symptoms of hyper-alertness … and the amount of medications they take, and have also helped with chronic sleep problems. But we desperately need support for this project, as well.”

INTRA also helps adults with physical disabilities and conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis and traumatic brain injury. “Riding stimulates the mind,” she said. “We seem to help them find new pathways in the brain over the course of a few years of therapy.”

Her newest project is “surf and ride,” where patients ride a therapy horse in the morning and take lessons at a nearby surfing club in the afternoon. “It’s been amazing, and I want to get our autistic children involved,” she said.

Heilpern has long been intrigued by the animal-human connection and visited INTRA the first of many times in 2001. She was so impressed that she asked friends and family to chip in for a therapy horse in honor of her 50th birthday. That is how Pokey came to INTRA.

“In 2006, I went to volunteer in the arena with the horses, so I saw personally what it’s all about,” said Heilpern. In 2008, she and her friend Barbara Goldberg in Ossining, N.Y., started Friends of INTRA. Their efforts have until now been limited to bar/bat mitzvah projects, mailings, and parlor meetings.

“This is the first time we’re doing an event,” she said of the flamenco night. Anita and Giora Shkedi are scheduled to fly over for the occasion, which will feature kosher hors d’oeuvres and wine purchased from Ma’adan in Teaneck. Beth Brunson of Manhattan is chairing the evening.

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