MAHWAH, N.J. -- While sitting atop a horse at the Three Sisters Farm in Mahwah, participants in a therapeutic riding program can not only admire their beautiful, natural surroundings, they can catch a glimpse of a brighter future.
The hundreds of special-needs or at-risk children and adults who have been through programs run by Pony Power Therapies, a nonprofit organization, get more than just a trot around the farm’s indoor and outdoor paddocks; they gain self-confidence, independence, curiosity … and joy.
These are all things, says the organization’s founder and executive director, Dana Spett, that “medicine can’t accomplish.”
Spett, a lifelong equestrian, discovered therapeutic riding while looking for a way to help her own daughter.
She launched the program in 2000 and in 2005 it transitioned to a nonprofit, now the only full-time one in Bergen County providing horse-assisted activities for special-needs folks.
Participants have a broad range of developmental and physical disabilities, including autism, cerebral palsy, mental health challenges, visual impairments and traumatic brain injuries.
But whatever their issues, Spett says, they emerge from the program with more hope and a better set of skills for tackling life’s day-to-day problems.
One of Pony Power’s newer offerings doesn’t involve riding, Spett said.
Participants are trained in the basics of horse care, including brushing and feeding.
But more importantly, it teaches them how to communicate with the animals, not with words, but with body language, Spett says.
This is especially useful for folks on the autism spectrum, who may have problems using words to communicate.
“It works really well for young adults who need to build their pre-vocational skills,” says Spett. “It’s a multi-sensory experience, too.”
Pony Power also offers a safe and supportive environment for clients’ siblings and parents.
One of its special programs helps the children of veterans and those still serving in the military.
It is sponsored, Spett says, by the Bergen County Police Chiefs Association and Suez, a water company.
Another, Summer Butterflies, focuses on giving children with life-threatening illnesses the chance to put their cares aside for a week. The sponsor for this program is The Valley Hospital Foundation.
Meanwhile, Hackensack University Medical Center has partnered with Pony Power to give pediatric oncology patients from the Joseph M. Sanzari Children’s Hospital some memorable experiences.
During each session, riders are paired with someone who leads the horse, another person who walks alongside, and the instructor.
The 3-to-1 ratio, along with some gentle introductions between horse and rider, is the key, Spett says, to earning their trust.
“It takes a few sessions to get everyone comfortable,” she adds.