Corro Stories

#CorroCares Spotlight: How Communication with Horses Improves the Lives of Disabled Riders at GallopNYC

By Amber Heintzberger

There is something about horses that is good for the soul, and communicating with horses develops a unique sort of language all its own. In the heart of Queens, in New York City, tucked in amongst the residential streets of Forest Hills, the therapeutic riding program GallopNYC brings city residents the opportunity to benefit from a relationship with horses.

Executive Director James Wilson said, “Because we’re based in NYC and focused exclusively on people from the city, the “horsiness” of our program is amplified. Many of our participants haven’t spent time around animals – maybe they have a dog or a cat, or they’ve seen a pigeon and a squirrel in the park – but they’ve never been around anything like a 1200 pound animal. I grew up in Texas, around horses and cows and dogs, and to me a horse is a horse – but for kids in New York City it’s kind of novel opportunity. Once you get past that part, the horsiness takes over. Once they get used to it, they have a relationship and you start to get that magic connection; all of us experience that.”

 

Image courtesy of GallopNYC

The organization offers therapy to kids with both physical and developmental disabilities. Wilson said that he has seen more than one child who has been labeled “nonverbal” speak for the first time when interacting with a horse. “Usually it’s ‘walk on’, because they’re having fun and they want to keep going,” he said. “The first time I saw this I was blown away. When it happens now, the parents are surprised and I’m kind of like, ‘Yeah, it happens all the time.’ Usually it’s younger, elementary school aged kids but sometimes older kids as well.”

He pointed out that with riding there is an important physical benefit of developing core strength. “Strengthening your core helps you push more air across your airway; so, you’re giving them increased core strength plus a fun activity that they can control with their voice. Also, when these kids come in, we’re not telling them they’re nonverbal, were telling them we believe in them and they can do what they want to do. It’s super cool.”

Image courtesy of GallopNYC

Wilson said that running a therapeutic riding program in the city has its challenges, but he said they are outweighed by the benefits. “This job, this organization, the work that we do is difficult,” he said. “We’re in the middle of NYC – we’re in parks, we’re in Queens, we’re not in the middle of Manhattan, and it’s kind of difficult for people to get to us. Plus keeping horses in the city is really challenging. But 200,000 kids in the NYC school district have an IEP, or are classified as having a disability, so there is an extraordinary amount of need. Kids in the city need therapeutic riding. So the work we do and the benefit we see is the reason we undertake this difficult thing. We could move upstate or to the suburbs, but we’re really focused on the needs of New York City.”

When Wilson started volunteering, he said he had a job in retail in New York City and missed having horses in his life. Over time, the rewards of being involved in the program became greater than spending time in the barn. “Like most volunteers I moved to New York and didn’t have horses in my life, so I started volunteering. At that point I didn’t know anything about kids or people with disabilities; I didn’t even particularly like kids, but horses – I was all in. Then I started working with this little girl who was very autistic, nonverbal, and had a hard time communicating with a lot of people. She often jumped off the horse, so they had me work with her because I was a physically strong person who could catch her and put her back on the horse. She was maybe 4 or 6 years old. I had been volunteering for a few weeks, and one day I went to meet her in the waiting area in the lobby. She looked at me and waved and grabbed my hand. For a person with autism, connecting with other people can be difficult, but at that moment she knew me, because she connected me with the horse and she knew that the next half hour would be fun. It had been about the horses, but all of a sudden it was really about the kids. Two years later I quit my job and now I’m the Executive Director. That’s who we are, seeing the successes for those kids it’s huge for us, every one of us, it makes our lives better.”

Image courtesy of GallopNYC

In addition to riding, Wilson said they do a lot of groundwork, because horsemanship doesn’t all come from time spent in the saddle. “We feel like it’s important for kids to know how to lead a horse, put a saddle on a horse, maybe pick out a horse’s feet. We feel like it’s important for everybody in our community to learn how to do this work because it builds a lot of confidence. If a kid’s fine motor skills aren’t very good, putting a girth on is a great challenge. Plus it builds empathy with the horse, which is a really important thing. If you’re only sitting on top of a horse it can feel like you’re just going for a pony ride; if you’re on the ground and putting your hands on a horse, when you do something and he reacts, there’s a relationship and you really connect with that animal. We feel like that’s an important part of what we’re doing.”

During the Covid-19 shutdown, instruction at GallopNYC went virtual. Instructor Juli Mosoff shared a story about a young student: "During our first virtual Pony Club meeting, our students learned about parts of the horse and then made their own horses out of construction paper. One student, Danny Ortega named his yellow paper horse “Spongebob.” His twin brother was so excited, since Danny doesn’t talk out loud very frequently. It was so nice that he got involved in the craft and really connected to his horse, even online!"

Image courtesy of GallopNYC featuring training with Chris Irwin

The organization as a whole subscribes to the methods of Chris Irwin, a popular clinician. Irwin has been teaching clinics at GallopNYC for the past five years or so, sharing his training and communication methods with staff and other participants. Wilson recalls, “Personally, when he showed up the first time I was like, ‘Who is this guy?’ At first I thought he was just doing tricks, but he kept doing them again and again. It really works. That’s what I credit with our horses being happier than some other horses; they have a really hard job, but we respect them and make them stress-free as much as we can.”

He explained, “He has this way of working with horses in that they’re reacting to your body language and position,” explained Wilson. “It’s very natural but it’s not ‘natural horsemanship’ – it’s very related to the way horses react in the wild, at liberty. We’ve trained all of our instructors to do this and it’s basically about being respectful to the horse. For example, you’ll never see somebody at GallopNYC pulling on a horse, because that doesn’t happen in the wild, you’ll see them pushing a horse’s hindquarters away. You interact with them in a way that they understand. There’s no pulling or jerking and our horses are happier for it.”

Wilson continued, “The horse is in a better position to be able to listen to what’s happening in the arena. You have the leader and the side walker and the horse could already be anxious because someone is being rude, or has a lot of energy. But if the horse is already calm because we’re being respectful of him, he can stay calm and listen to the rider, and listen to the lead walker, and he has a really nice life in that way. It’s important for me, and all of our staff, to make sure our horses are happy. We do recreational lessons as well, and some of the horses are happier doing that. We also have horses that only go out on the trails in the park in Forest Hills, because that makes them happy. If a horse is unhappy at GallopNYC then we find them a new home.”

Wilson encourages everyone to remember that therapeutic riding is not just a pony ride for people with disabilities. “I want everyone to understand that it’s more than that: they’re learning patience, communication, muscle toning, and things that are making their lives better.”