Horses offer healing
By Alison Rooney
There is no specific ‘just right’ horse at the Therapeutic Equestrian Center (TEC). In fact, the ten horses in current residence differ from each other in age, breed, height, girth and temperament, because the clients of the center each have different needs and capabilities. The most crucial characteristic required is that each horse must be “sensible and grounded” according to TEC director, Garrison’s Leslie Heanue, who founded the center in 2009. With a mission to provide therapeutic and recreational riding for physically and developmentally disabled children and adults, TEC’s horses “need to be balanced and fit,” according to Heanue. “The natural movement of a horse is one of the few things that mimic the natural rhythm of a walk. So, if your horse is lame, the rhythm will be incorrect. And all horses spook, but we work with them here on things like space issues, because we have so many people around them, moving about. Our instructors ride the horses specifically to give them that tone and fitness.” The horses that fit the bill at TEC range from 4 to 28 years old; some have bigger barrels (ribcage area), which can help support clients with balance issues; others have the narrow shoulders necessary for clients with less mobility in their hips and the spread of their legs.”
TEC offers both therapeutic riding and hippotherapy, by PATH-trained (Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship) riding instructors, along with other equine-assisted therapies. As described in their literature, therapeutic riding is an individualized program of learning how to ride a horse, taking into account a person’s strengths and weaknesses, with the physical goals being improved strength, balance mobility and coordination, and cognitive goals of increased attention, concentration, learning and verbal skills. Improvements in self-esteem and confidence are byproducts. Hippotherapy is physical therapy by licensed occupational and physical therapists who have been trained to use the natural movement of the horse in their work. TEC’s clients encompass both children and adults, and their programs are designed to benefit those with conditions or disabilities including autism, Down syndrome, head trauma, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis and many more.
The physical setting and structures at the center are breathtaking. Situated on a hill adjacent to Stonecrop Gardens along Route 301, the compound is surrounded by a pastoral landscape. There are four grass paddocks, an outdoor riding area and two sand paddocks. A large administrative center houses the staff offices, a conference room and a viewing room which also holds a library of books related to horses, many contributed through a book drive coordinated by the Garrison School eighth grade class (local libraries also collect and donate equine-themed books to the TEC library). The entire structure is handicapped-accessible, with the 20-stall barn connected to the other building; the connector holding a grooming area and a tack room.
The whole complex was constructed by King Construction Company from New Holland, Penn., an Amish-run company, which specializes in the design and building of equestrian facilities. Excavation, on land leased from Stonecrop Gardens, began in August 2009, and brick and mortar construction was done from November 2009 through April 2010. That April through July saw the sheetrocking, electric and HVAC systems put in, most work done by local contractors, including Pidala Electric and Cary Downey. All of it was closely supervised by Heanue, who acted as foreman and noted “I was here every day.” Throughout there is radiant floor heat, and an emphasis on ventilation, with dust-free footing, lots of natural light and Dutch doors plus a window in each stall.
Leslie Heanue grew up riding and taking care of horses. She then joined the corporate world, working for many years at Chase private banking. Although she enjoyed what she was doing, she always had awareness that in times of stress, she would turn towards horses. A turning point came when “I realized this is what I really wanted to do, and I decided to pursue it.” In preparation, Heanue visited a lot of PATH centers in barns to see how they were set up. Plans originally to build the center in a public park were discarded when funding dried up. Heanue then took her idea to Stonecrop Gardens’ Anne Cabot, who was highly encouraging. Stonecrop offered the land for lease, and since then, according to Heanue, “support has come from many, and in many areas: financially, physically and emotionally.”
With a small staff, including two instructors who are members of the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association, TEC is reliant upon a large contingent of volunteers, and currently has about 70. There are currently about 30 clients, most of whom come from referrals from agencies, and also from research and internet searches. Each potential client has an initial evaluation appointment, to discuss their goals, identify the resources available, and then see if the horse they need is available on the day(s) they are free to attend. Once a client is accepted, he or she attends a six-week-long session, and these sessions are currently offered four times per year. Over 80 percent of the clients have been returning for additional sessions. There is a need for these services — the closest facility providing similar therapies — Pegasus, in Brewster — has a two-year waiting list. According to the Putnam County Division of Planning and Development’s most current census, there are over 12,000 persons with disabilities (ages five and over) in Putnam County.
A 501 (c)(3) nonprofit, TEC’s fees do not cover its expenses, with insurance companies limiting coverage to specified occupational and physical therapy only, therefore grant applications are a big component of TEC’s administrative side, with a recent proposal made to the Christopher Reeve Foundation. All of the horses are donated, and often the donors come and visit their horses. There is also a “sponsor-a-horse” program whereby contributors can choose to support a particular horse for a year. Volunteers (and donations) are still very much needed, and one doesn’t need experience with horses in order to help. Heanue reels off any number of areas needing assistance: grant writing, reception/phone answering, outdoor bulb planting, cleaning, et cetera. A big volunteer training day is scheduled for Martin Luther King, Jr. day, Monday, Jan. 16. If you are interested, call the center at 845-265-3409 to hear about the possibilities. Also on Martin Luther King Day, United Way is coming up to help with a building project.
In addition to the therapeutic program, TEC has added a general junior horsemanship series for children, focused on horse care and management. The six-week program begins on Jan. 10, and is designed for children from first through fourth grades. There is a summer camp program as well.
Future programming expansion hopes are to work with returning veterans, in particular those with amputations and balance issues. Heanue has already had talks with VA administrators at Montrose and Castle Point. She also hopes to incorporate more programs with local schools and BOCES. For more information on all of the services offered by the center, visit myfeettakewings.org or phone 845-265-3409.
Photos by A.Rooney