Two years ago, a child named Brandon had a migrational brain disorderthat kept him confined to walkers and leg braces. Now he can tack a one-ton horse. Marissa was traumatically brain injured at age 2. But this amazing child can use sign language and ride a horse at the same time.
“The idea to create an equestrian therapy program really began when I was teaching in the classroom with 15-to-21-year-old at-risk youth who were labeled behaviorally and emotionally disturbed,” says Lisa Gatti, executive director and founder of nonprofit Pal-O-Mine Equestrian. “As a result, [they] were in and out of the system. I realized teaching them Edgar Allen Poe would be quite useless as they were lacking all the very basic life skills. My horse could teach them these skills, and it began from there. The kids began to visit the stables and my horse every day after school to learn responsibility, trust, sportsmanship and camaraderie.”
Fifteen years later, some of these same kids are still connected to Pal-O-Mine. The organization operates a facility solely dedicated to providing services to youth and adults facing a variety of challenges and needs in order to augment growth, learning and healing.
After her moment of inspiration, Gatti had originally set out to create a program that combined hippotherapy and equine psychotherapy along with competitive and therapeutic riding to help children and adults achieve physical, emotional and cognitive benefits. In the early days, Pal-O-Mine was helping a handful of kids on Long Island. The organization has now grown to be able to aid thousands of people throughout New York to find their unbridled potential.
“Pal-O-Mine has become a place where no challenge is too great and where large and small miracles are happening every day,” Gatti says.
Take Bruno’s case for example. Because of his cerebral palsy, Bruno required someone to steer his wheelchair. At Pal-O-Mine, however, he has the freedom to ride a horse without the use of his wheelchair. “I never thought he would be on a horse,” says Bruno’s mom Susan. “And I never thought he would enjoy it so much!”
Pal-O-Mine’s program is renown mostly because of its staff’s strengths and experience. The staff is comprised of special educators, mental health professionals, equine professionals, nurses and occupational, physical and speech therapists. Gatti sits on the Board of Directors of the international Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA). Of the six full-time and 20 part-time staff members, 15 have higher education degrees in their field and seven have master’s or doctoral level degrees. “It takes incredible people to build an organization that can support the needs of so many different people in our community,” Gatti explains.
Therapeutic horseback riding delivers remarkable benefits to participants through stretching both minds and muscles. Improvements in posture, balance, coordination, muscle tone, confidence and self-worth are seen almost immediately. To achieve these goals, Pal-O-Mine uses techniques like hippotherapy, equine-assisted psychotherapy and competition programs.
Hippotherapy is a physical, occupational and speech-language therapy treatment strategy that embraces equine movement as part of an integrated intervention program. Equine-assisted psychotherapy incorporates horses experientially for emotional growth and learning. It is a collaborative effort between a licensed therapist and a horse professional working to address treatment goals.
Participants in the competition program participate in recognized horse shows across Long Island, including the finals at the prestigious Hampton Classic Horse Show. Pal-O-Mine also hosts several shows a year, including the Annual Long Island Invitational Horse Show. Pal-O-Mine horses and riders attend benefit horse shows, too. On the national level, Pal-O-Mine student Keith Newerla has represented the United States in two Paralympic Games, one in Greece and most recently in Hong Kong.
Success at Pal-O-Mine is measured in several ways: a first word, improved posture or simply a smile. Noting that Pal-O-Mine staff believes horses can heal and that everyone, regardless of disability or struggle, has potential, Gatti says, “When I see these families impacted by the work we do, when I see the smiles it puts on the faces of so many, I know we are doing good work.”
Trot to these sites for other equine programs in the area.
- Thomas School of Horsemanship: www.tshcamp.com
- Greenlawn Equestrian Center: www.greenlawnequestrian.com
- Center for Therapeutic Horseback Riding on the East End: www.ctreeny.org