By Elizabeth Novogratz
Photographs: James Wilson
When Gabe, a nine year-old boy from Brooklyn started riding at GallopNYC, a therapeutic riding program in New York City, he’d been diagnosed as non-verbal, having never uttered a word. His instructor, Marie, was aware of the fact that he didn’t speak, but in true GallopNYC fashion, she didn’t allow a diagnosis to limit her expectations for her rider. Instead, she asked Gabe to tell his horse Buddy to “Walk on,“ during a lesson, while showing him how to tap Buddy’s neck to signal him to go. Just as Gabe’s schoolteacher spoke up to remind Marie that Gabe was not verbal, Gabe said, “Walk on.” And, a few weeks later, at the end of his eleven-week session, he patted Buddy on the neck and said, “Thanks, you’re the best.”
Gabe’s is one of hundreds of kids with disabilities who have flourished at GallopNYC, a non-profit organization based in New York City that offers therapeutic horsemanship programs to children and adults with disabilities. The organization was founded in 2005, and since then has transformed hundreds of lives. GallopNYC affects not just the lives of the kids and adults who have participated in the program, but it also has an enormous impact on the program’s staff and volunteers. How could it not when stories like Gabe’s are taking place on a regular basis?
When asked why she helped start GallopNYC, Executive Director Alicia Kershaw replied, “We saw a need and we thought we could meet it.” And, ten years later, she and the GallopNYC team are continually doing everything in their power to expand the program and meet the need. A decade ago, when she helped found GallopNYC, there were only two small therapeutic riding programs in New York City. Alicia said to herself, “well, how hard can it be?” It was much harder than she’d anticipated, but clearly, not enough to stop her. GallopNYC started out with one small program in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park and has since then expanded into five stables and city parks throughout Brooklyn, Queens, and The Bronx.
Currently, GallopNYC offers free or low-cost therapeutic horseback riding and hippo therapy, a form of therapy that utilizes equine movement, to 300 children with disabilities throughout New York City, and there are another 300 on the waiting list. They also offer Horsemanship Leadership programs to Veterans, free of charge. To date, dozens of Veterans have come through the program, which is aimed at strengthening confidence, competence, and leadership for Veterans and is endorsed by the Veteran’s Association as an effective therapy.
It takes a village to make an organization like GallopNYC run. They hold equine assisted therapy programs on a daily basis at different barns all over New York City. That’s not an easy thing to make happen. Fortunately there is an incredible staff and hundreds of volunteers who make it all happen and keep happening. All of GallopNYC’s programs are led by Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH Int’l) certified instructors, and the organization could not exist without the 350 trained and committed volunteers who have put thousands of hours into the program.
And, of course there are the horses. Three of GallopNYC’s horses are rescues, a pony is leased from a summer camp, and dozens are rented from the barns where the program is run. Riverdale Stables in The Bronx is the newest barn to host GallopNYC’s programs. In total, there are four stables, Riverdale, The Bronx Equestrian Center, Jamaica Bay in Brooklyn, and Lynn’s Riding School in Queens. There’s no stable where the program is held on the Bowling Green in Prospect Park, so instead, the horses are trailered in.
GallopNYC still sees a need. And they have plans to continue to expand the program. GallopNYC hopes to build a riding facility on the Bowling Green in Prospect Park, Brooklyn. They are working with the Park to develop plans for a more permanent solution for year round use.