MONROE — Every week, four-year-old Juliette, who has cerebral palsy, travels to Congress Hill Farm for her adaptive horse riding lesson through the Special Strides organization.
On Oct. 10, with the guidance of Mariah Gari, a physical therapy intern from Kean University, and volunteer Joan Fox, the youngster went through the movements of getting ready for her lesson from putting on her helmet, riding belt and walking to greet Milo, a paint pony.
Laurie Landy, an occupational therapist and founding director of Special Strides, said the movement of the horses and ponies achieve the goals a typical rehabilitation session at an office would achieve, plus so much more.
“It’s like the horse borrows the person’s nervous system and the horse provides great rhythm for therapy,” she said, adding the horse helps find the center of body and engages the core center, and provides direct stimulation. “The horse helps move the client side to side, back and forth, and rotate their hips all at once. ”
During Juliette’s 45-minute session, she stopped at various sensory obstacle courses and playground equipment on the farm to work on strength and balance. She even made a pit-stop to see Romeo and Juliet, two small miniature ponies, and got to see some of the 150 goats roaming the farm.
This year marks the 20th birthday of Special Strides, a non-profit organization dedicated to improving the lives of individuals with special needs through a unique combination of therapy, horses and the natural environment.
Landy said the special needs of their clients range from the autism spectrum, down syndrome, cerebral palsy and multiple sclerosis to anxiety, post traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injuries and depression.
The organization held its annual gala celebrating the big milestone with dinner, music from Unique Musique and a silent auction on Oct. 6 at the farm.
The farm at 118 Federal Road is owned by Landy and her husband. The Landy Family equestrian center became the homestead where Landy began her dream of providing therapy with the partnership of a horse.
When Landy was employed as an occupational therapist in the Freehold school system, she would invite the special needs pre-school students for a day on her farm. After witnessing children independently walk for the first time and utter their first word, it convinced her to begin developing the Special Strides program, which was founded in 1998.
Today, the Special Strides program serves some 130 to 150 clients from as young as 18 months old to 70 years old, who travel from Monmouth and Middlesex counties to as far as Ocean and Union counties.
“We probably serve 60 percent children under the age of 10 and 40 percent teens and adults,” Landy said. “We have 21 therapy horses and a carriage, which can fit up to six people.”
The carriage was donated for adapted carriage driving sessions, which is named after Joseph Farrelly, a New York City firefighter who perished in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Farrelly’s family donated the carriage.
The therapy horses include paint ponies, quarter horses and a Norwegian Fjord. Landy noted that legendary singer Bruce Springsteen had donated a horse to the farm.
Special Strides employs six physical therapists, three occupational therapists, one speech language pathologist and one social worker. The program also has many interns from local universities in a variety of disciplines, who train at the farm, and 500 plus volunteers, including side-walkers, horse handlers, office assistants and junior committee leaders.
Susie Rehr said the program has various components including hippotherapy, the integration of motion of the horse to facilitate functional changes in areas such as sitting, walking, communication, playing and learning and equine facilitating psychotherapy, where a horse provides feedback in a way that enables an individual to investigate their communication strategies and attachment possibilities in an experiential manner.
The other components include recreation of adaptive horseback riding and carriage driving, which improve motor skills, balance, posture, coordination, strength and body awareness and education, which provides clients opportunities for exploration of educational concepts and of self, which improves overall physical, cognitive, social and emotional well-being.
Since its inception, Special Strides has focused on improving the quality of life for all individuals ‘one stride at a time’ regardless of financial status.
For more information, visit specialstrides.com.