HOWARD BEACH, New York- “There’s something really special about horses, you can see a certain calmness about them,” Marie Varvaro, GallopNYC Horse Manager and Instructor, said. It comes from their innate sensibility and unique ability to recognize every rider’s situation, especially those with special needs. “What is the change in the horse when they’re around a challenged kid?” I asked Varvaro. “They don’t react the same, they don’t jump, they don’t run and they won’t pull any of their normal horse antics,” she explained.
This is the main focus of GallopNYC, a nonprofit that offers therapeutic horseback riding to schoolchildren with different abilities. “I like to call my class one big melting pot, there’s not just one kind of student,” Jessica Pinder described. “We have students with autism, intellectual disability [and more].” Jessica Pinder is a teacher at P.S. K004 in Brooklyn and has been bringing her class here for weeks. “They’re learning social skills, they’re learning how to work with others, and they’re learning how to work with animals,” she said.
“I love horses,” Ellis smiled. “Does the horse love you too?” I asked. “Yeah, because he’s my friend.” Forming a relationship came easy for third grader, Ellis, but it’s not something everyone feels comfortable with at first. “There are children that come here when they first arrive they are really afraid and they won’t go anywhere near a horse,” Varvaro said. “And before you know it there’s a bond there between them and the horse, it’s just incredible.”
Through the nonprofit’s specifically designed occupational and physical exercises, these kids are making huge strides in other areas as well. “We make them stronger, we improve their cognitive ability, and we help them to improve their connection with people and their surroundings.” And when the program wraps at the end of each semester every student leaves with a blue ribbon and a forever friend. “I like this horse because he’s so cool, he’s the best!” A relationship I couldn’t wait to have, but it seems not everyone thought it was a good idea. “If I get on the horse, what will happen?” I asked Ellis. “You would fall,” he replied.