Horses Provide Stability for Disabled Youth

The New York Therapeutic Riding Center Brings Together Volunteers and Students with Country Comfort


Stefanie Pleschinger (right) and other volunteers safely mount Devon onto a pony by adjusting her stirrups. (Ashley WennersHerron/The Observer)

Published: November 20, 2008

Wandering along 48th Street towards 11th Avenue, there’s a whiff of something different in the air. The normal city stench is tinged with the smell of country; for there, nestled between an anonymous office building and an abandoned garage, is the oldest working horse stable in New York City.

In operation for 155 years, Chateau Stables houses the horses seen pulling carriages full of tourists in Central Park. Chateau Stables donates their space and some of these same horses to the New York Therapeutic Riding Center (NYTRC), which runs the riding program EQUESTRIA for people with disabilities.

Horses, which are generally gentle giants, are just one aspect of the atmosphere. Every Saturday, just a few blocks from Fordham College at Lincoln Center (FCLC), volunteers from all over the city and all walks of life gather to participate in EQUESTRIA.

A volunteer myself, each one of us comes from a different region of the country and brings a unique perspective to the program. Hailing from southern Virginia, I grew up with horses and being in an atmosphere with horse stables makes me feel like I’m home again. However, having the opportunity to work with horses is just the icing on the cake of witnessing disabled students physically improve from the strength these horses lend.

“I’ve seen children with Autism speak for the first time…[I’ve] seen children grow happier and healthier,” said Courtney Cavagnaro, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) ’10.

Although the program is open to anyone with disabilities, all of the participants in the fall session are children—excited children.

“The fun part is when I ride the pony and we get to trot!” said Kassandra, a precocious seven year old, as she worked on a My Little Pony puzzle with her aide. She is in the program on a scholarship from the Rusk Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine.

Richard Brodie, the director and founder of the NYTRC, said, “There is a tremendous need for this program. These are families that aren’t driving off to Connecticut every weekend. They need this program here, in the city.”

Sophie, another student, is five years old and very shy. She will not speak, and she needs someone to ride behind her on the horse for support. While waiting for her class to begin, she watches the students and horses in the first class complete their activities. Once her class starts, she has a chance to relax in the saddle, and a smile begins to glimmer. Sophie underwent heart surgery a week later.

At almost seven years old, Bess is another EQUESTRIA participant. Pragmatic and charming, her pure passion for riding is apparent as she leans over the chain separating the arena from the waiting area. She has already completed her class, and she’s waiting for her younger brother to finish his lesson. Cookie in hand, she munches happily as she explains the different riding techniques she learned that day.

“Well, it’s really fun when we do point and position… I can ride holding onto the reins and make the horse go in the direction I want,” Bess said. She is a little shy now that she is off the horse, but she is still grinning and her pattern of speech gurgles with laughter. She is a happy kid, made happier by a feeling of accomplishment that comes from learning to horseback ride.

Stephanie Pleschinger, the EQUESTRIA instructor, has a way with the students. She completed her therapeutic riding instructor training center in Connecticut. Pleschinger learned about the NYTRC and the opening for Saturday classes through the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association (NARHA). After volunteering through the spring, Pleschinger became the Saturday instructor for the fall session.

“I [look] forward to observing the riders’ progress over the course of a lesson and over the weeks,” Pleschinger said. “There are some very special moments in every class that are very rewarding… when, after several times of practice, a rider has accomplished a task.”

Gloria McGill, president of Chateau Stables INC, is a caregiver to all those who cross her path, humans and livestock alike. She rescued many of the horses in the program and gave them second chances. Sandy, the resident goat, is a favorite among volunteers and students. She had lived at a petting zoo, but when it closed, she was sent to the slaughterhouse. An acquaintance of McGill’s brought her the goat.

“He said it was a sin to bring this lovely animal to die, so he brought her to me,” McGill said. Her family owns a 12-acre farm in Pennsylvania, where she attempted to make Sandy at home. Sandy wouldn’t have it.

“She’s a city goat,” McGill said. “She prefers the people and the energy. She gets so much attention here.”

Sandy greets all of the volunteers and students from her pen at the front of the stable. Everyone is welcome, as long as you remember to give the goat a pat. She seems to enjoy seeing the reactions of people passing by. She’ll snort and put on a little show for the tourists who happen to wander west of Times Square.

McGill ensures that the hardworking horses also get a vacation. They are all kept in the city on a rotating basis. Every few months, they go to the farm in Pennsylvania for a well-deserved break. The horses not only work in Central Park, or in the NYTRC, but many of them are also movie stars. One was ridden by Susan Sarandon in “Stepmom,” and another is currently filming a commercial.

I consider myself lucky to have been fortunate enough to stumble upon this unusual oasis in the middle of a huge city that can frequently feel cold and so far from home. To belong to this family that extends to all people, to work with people with such good hearts, to be near something so familiar—it smoothes the transition from home into the real world.

Bricklin Dwyer, the volunteer coordinator, recognizes that every one takes something different from the program.

“Whether it’s for the horses or children, every one takes something good away,” Dwyer said.