In Greek mythology, Pegasus was the winged white horse who accompanied the heroes Perseus, Bellerophon and, if Disney is to be believed, Hercules on their adventures. When Bellerophon tried to ride him to Heaven, those mercurial gods caused the steed to buck, throwing him back down to Earth. But Pegasus continued to wing his way to Mount Olympus, where he took his place in the stables of Zeus and our imaginations.
Today, the Pegasus name and image are used to sell everything from air travel to faucets. But perhaps most important, they represent a therapeutic riding program in New York and Connecticut, whose mission is to “provide the benefits of equine-assisted activities and therapies to individuals with special needs.”
The first Pegasus was started in 1975 by a small group of equestriennes at Ox Ridge Hunt Club in Darien. An accredited PATH International Premier Center (the highest standard in the field) Pegasus now has four other chapters as well – Pegasus Farm in Brewster, the nonprofit’s main equestrian center; Fox Hill Farm in Pleasantville; Kelsey Farm in Greenwich and New Canaan Mounted Troop in New Canaan.
“Our program has expanded and contracted depending on where we’re able to have a chapter,” says Christine Fitzgerald, communications director.
Regional chapters, like the one I visited at Kelsey Farm, generously donate their horses and facility one or two days a week. The rest of the time they are operating horse farms.
In 2007, Pegasus realized a 20-year dream when an anonymous donor gave the organization $2.1 million to buy its own property in Brewster.
“A lot of the day-to-day expenses of the organization are because we own the farm,” Christine explains. “But we’re able to ride so many more students, and we have a program called Horses & Me, which is a ground program. So we can expand how many horses we can have there and we can expand programs to six days a week. It’s definitely worth the trade off.”
A horse’s movements are similar to the normal gait of a human. Participants experience the wonder of therapeutic riding through a transfer of motion between horse and rider that is both powerful and healing.
Students with special needs – ranging from physical to cognitive, emotional and developmental – come to the program, mainly through word of mouth. Most of the students are children under 18 years old, though there are some adult students, too.
Through learning basic riding skills, individuals can improve mobility, balance, posture, coordination, language development, behavior control and concentration.
“It’s the motion, the bonding, the interplay. Horses have this wonderful compassion that makes them very special animals. And with our children, I think motion is a very big part of it,” says instructor and volunteer manager, Bill Prout, who is a PATH accredited advanced instructor.
Marny Mansfield, a licensed occupational therapist and one of the few PATH master instructors in the field, leads the Kelsey Farm class of five students, ages 4 and 5, with varying special needs, which included autism, Down syndrome and low muscle tone. As the ringleader, literally and figuratively, Marny stands in the center while students ride their horses around her with the help of volunteers who work as leaders or side-walkers. Volunteers make sure the riders are safe and encourage them to do their best.
“It’s a rhythmic, repetitive movement,” Marny says. “So a lot of these kids, who may not have the best motor planning or the most coordinated activities, find just having that underlying rhythmic activity going on the whole time helps them.”
But according to Marny, it’s also much larger than that. It’s “the psychological and social connection with the volunteers as well as the horse and just being on this powerful, wonderful, magical animal and being in control of that, doing something that some of their peers may not do….”
“You can’t discount the social aspect of this,” Bill agrees.
Because of the social interplay, instructors like Bill and Marny make sure to select compatible groups that are close in age. The disabilities can vary within a given group, but there should be an interaction.
In his role as volunteer manager, Bill deals with 500 people in all five chapters.
“What we try to do is empower our volunteers, to educate them, to make them understand their role and how important it is. And then basically, the program unfolds because of them. So it really becomes a volunteer-based organization beyond any imagination.”