Horse-assisted therapy in Esopus

Samson, Rachel O’Farrell and Gail Denning

“I want people to see how intimate and amazing the partnership can be between a person and a horse. And I know that even very disabled people can do it,” said Nancy Rosen, owner of Frog Hollow Farm in Esopus. The founder of Horses for a Change, a therapeutic riding program for people with disabilities, Nancy offers lessons for riders at all levels of ability.

Rachel O’Farrell, 24, sits astride a gentle bay horse named Samson, her hands gripping the bars of a surcingle, a sturdy strap with two handles in place of a saddle. I am leading Samson around the indoor riding arena, while Gail Denning, director of therapeutic riding, and Robbi Nanni, who formerly ran the program, walk on either side, watching Rachel closely and placing an arm near her leg if she seems unsteady.

“Sit up straight,” Gail reminds Rachel. “Look at your mom and dad,” who are standing at the end of the ring, ahead of us as we walk along the wall. Rachel, who is non-verbal, lifts her head, straightens her spine, and then begins to shift her weight forward and back. “She wants to trot,” Gail says. “Look at that, Robbi, she really wants to move.”

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Rachel has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair, although she can walk short distances with support. When she began riding at Horses for a Change several months ago, she needed padding buckled around her waist to keep her from collapsing forward. As her core strength increased through the twice-weekly lessons, she was able to hold herself upright, and the padding was removed.

“The progression has been very quick,” said her mother, Jamie. “Years ago when I was told about therapeutic riding, I was skeptical. But the first time I put her on a horse, I saw how good it was for her. She loves the attention, how Gail and Robbi talk to her, and she loves animals. She loves moving her body in this different way.”

Gail received certification from the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship, earned an undergraduate degree in animal-assisted therapy, worked for years in special education, and has been around horses since she was twelve. Many of her students are on the autism spectrum, and many of them are unable to speak or are minimally verbal, requiring close observation. “I watch their body language, how they’re interacting with the horse, their posture, the horse’s response to them. I have seen a movement from fear and nervousness to calm and confidence.”

Some parents complain their kids are not compliant at home. Gail finds riding encourages positive behaviors. “When they’re up on a horse, and I’m talking to them, they’re motivated to make eye contact and repeat words,” she said. “They’ll do what I ask and stop doing what I don’t want them to do. It’s a fun moment, and they’re usually very receptive and respectful.”

At the end of a ride, the student will often want to pet the horse. “They were able to do something important, and they’re happy about it,” said Gail. “There are sweet moments of gratitude.”

Nancy, now in her 70s but still driving a backhoe and hauling around 40-pound bags of stall bedding, established Frog Hollow Farm in 1978. Soon thereafter, she began taking students with disabilities and mental-health issues. She has a master’s in social work and used to work as a family therapist. Her history with horses includes winning silver and bronze medals in Grand Prix dressage competition, the branch of riding that emphasizes the horse’s balanced, precise movement across ground. She continues to teach dressage to young people and adults, partly to demonstrate the goal that all her students are potentially capable of reaching.

At the Paralympics, the international multi-sports competition for people with disabilities, she observed, “there are seriously disabled people competing in dressage. Riding can help you with balance and core strength, and helps you feel good because little you is controlling a big powerful horse. Even if the horse is being led, you’re saying, ‘Walk,’ and ‘Whoa,’ directing the movement.”

Nancy recalled working with a girl from a program for traumatized children, teaching her to rise and sit at the trot on a tall horse. “She had a big smile on her face. When we stopped, it was like a dam had opened. She started telling me painful things going on in her life. When I asked if it was easier for her to speak on a horse, she said yes. I asked, ‘Do you have any idea why?’ She said, ‘I’m sitting up here, and no one can look down on me.’”

When I was a child, I longed for a pony, but my parents couldn’t afford one. They let me take weekly riding lessons, which persisted for twelve years, until I went away to college. This past fall, when I tried to think of an activity to brighten my winter months I remembered the pleasure of being around horses. A quick Internet search brought me to the website of Horses for a Change, which stated a willingness to train volunteers for the therapeutic riding program.

The first day, I felt clumsy as I helped groom Samson before the lesson. I had forgotten how big horses are and how scary they can be. But I have gradually relaxed, as the horses and I learn to trust each other. I have been taught new skills by the women of all ages who work or volunteer at the barn. I can now clean a horse’s hooves and put blankets, bridles, and saddles on and off. And when I lead Samson or Sunny or CC around the arena with a rider on his back, I relish the responsiveness of the horse as I lean into his shoulder to ask him to halt.

By the time I leave at the end of the afternoon, I have imbibed some of the calm patience of the horse. Like the students, I find horses deliver excellent therapy.

Frog Hollow Farm is located in Esopus. Many local agencies refer clients to Horses for a Change, and in some cases grants are available to pay for lessons. Most of the horses used for classes are rescues, abused or neglected animals that have been rejuvenated and trained by Nancy Rosen and her staff. For more information, visit https://horsesforachange.org.

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