'It's Traumatic': Therapeutic Riding Programs Struggle Under State Shutdowns

'It's Traumatic': Therapeutic Riding Programs Struggle Under State Shutdowns

At a small stable nestled in the Forest Hills neighborhood of Queens, NYC, a group of horses are tended by employees of Gallop NYC, a therapeutic riding program. The usual hustle and bustle is gone: no children riding and visiting their equine friends, no volunteers grooming and tacking up or assisting the riders. Like all non-essential businesses in the city hit harder than any place on earth by COVID-19, Gallop NYC has been shut down. 

They are not alone: across the country, therapeutic riding programs struggle to survive. Often run as non-profit organizations that rely on donations to operate, these programs also serve a community of disabled people that rely on therapy for physical and mental benefits. Now many of these riders are stuck at home, only able to see photos of their equine friends when organizations like Gallop NYC share them on social media, and programs are struggling to make ends meet.

James Wilson, Executive Director of GallopNYC, explained that they stopped offering group programs in early March, 2020. They tried to make things work with one-on-one sessions, but by March 20th they closed the barns down (they have two locations: one in Forest Hills and one in Howard Beach, also in Queens). There are usually 20 horses at each of the barns, including eight or nine privately boarded. 

“I saw this coming and tried to reduce the number of horses we have in the city, so we moved about 25 horses upstate to a boarding facility. One of our friends has a place where she boards horses and right now they’re out in a field, being horses and living their best life. For them it’s great. For my staff, grooms, they’ve been furloughed. Almost all of our instructors are furloughed. The horses are well cared for – they don’t know what’s going on.”

Riders Missing Out

According to pathintl.org there are more than 850 Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH Intl.) Member Centers in the United States and around the world providing equine-assisted activities and therapies. 

Wilson said that Gallop NYC usually has 400-450 riders a week in the spring, most of them with disabilities. Now they are all home, waiting out the pandemic. “A horse barn without riders is kind of a sad place,” said Wilson. “There are no kids smiling and parents proudly watching the kids, and a horse that doesn’t have a job is not happy, they cannot stand around for so long. I feel bad for our riders and I feel bad for the horses.

“Obviously they’re not in school, and in some cases the parents are trying to help but a mom is not a special-ed teacher and these kids are being underserved at the moment," he continued. "There are a lot of programs that we work with and none of them are happening. We’ve started some virtual programming and it’s cool, but it’s not the same as sitting on a horse.”

Gallop NYC. Maggie Munoff photo.

Serving the Charleston, SC area, Rein and Shine serves disabled children, adults and veterans. It is located on the property of Windwood Farm Home for Children and Family Services. While they don’t pay board for their nine horses, they are subject to the limitations of Windwood, which houses around 25 boys and follows DHEC guidelines. Director Catherine Tallman said their staff has been taking turns feeding and grooming the horses, but no one is currently allowed to ride at the facility. 

She said the horses are fine having some pasture time, but they are losing fitness as they become pasture ornaments. “They need the mental and physical stimulation,” she said. 

In California, REINS Therapeutic Horsemanship Program in Bonsall saw their programming come to a screeching halt with the statewide shutdown. Business Development Manager Canece Huber said, “The ranch is empty of laughter and hugs, and the horses are our only consolation.”

She said that they typically have 100 volunteers weekly, but have had to ask them not to come to the ranch. “That has been really difficult as they all want so desperately to help, but it’s just not safe for so many people to gather. We have been emailing and texting to as many as we can. Given the reduction in staff hours, all the work the volunteers typically assist us with has shifted to staff just to keep them working.”

Virtual Programming Is 'Better than Nothing'

Gallop NYC has an active online presence and is finding ways to connect with participants virtually. “Our program manager is a social worker and we have a parent resource group,” said Wilson. “We have ‘Horse 101’ and the goal there is to try to keep our volunteers engaged, so they stay part of the community until we open again. We’re also doing some social type things. We’re doing a program where kids can talk with their instructor and continue that relationship, and we’ll start offering some movement videos that people can do at home – it’s not the same but it’s something, and something is better than nothing.”

"(Volunteers) want so desperately to help, but it’s just not safe..."

With the outbreak in New York City increasing exponentially, Wilson said that so far they have been fortunate that everyone is staying healthy. “It’s traumatic, none of us feel great about the outcomes, but that’s not unique to us. It’s not all sunshine and roses but I’m proud of the work that we’re doing and I know we’re going to come out of the other side and come back to people that need it in NYC.”

Though staff can’t live on-site due to city regulations, he said that he and the barn manager are splitting time visiting facilities and supporting the staff. They have around fifteen horses still in the city - they kept the boarded horses here because they can’t move somebody else’s horse, and they have a couple older horses that need care and wouldn’t do well being put out to pasture. But nobody is riding anyway, these days. 

“The hospital system is so overtaxed that we don’t want to take a risk of riding. We’re trying to longe the horses and do some work. Our instructors would like to ride, but we just can’t right now. Our volunteers can’t even visit. We have one guy, Bruce, who’s been part of the organization longer than I have. He always comes to the barn and helps even in the middle of winter – it’s horrible for me to have to call him and tell him he can’t come to the barn.”

Maggie Munoff photo.

On the other side of the country REINS has a herd of 20 therapy horses, and more room to roam. They are all turned out daily, and their instructors have set up a schedule to keep them ridden and exercised regularly. “We can tell [they miss their riders] as they call to us when we’re anywhere near their stall,” she said. “They are eager for any affection they can get.”

They are also putting together virtual lessons this week. “We are going to try and engage with the students that can interact electronically. Unfortunately, there are a large percentage of students for whom virtual interaction will not work.”

They are also arranging a “Pony Parade” or a drive-by, where the families are invited to drive to the ranch and remain in their cars while each instructor brings out a horse they can stop and visit. They are still working out the logistics. 

Fundraising for Runway

Operating a therapeutic riding program involves paying for facilities, horses and their care, and staff salaries. Without consistent income and with fundraisers canceled, this is a tough time financially for many programs. 

At Gallop NYC, over 300 people donated to a go-fund-me fundraiser. “We were fortunate to have a piece in the New York Times about our plight,” said Wilson. “We’ve historically depended a lot on individuals and that’s where we are now. We’ve been really fortunate in that regard. We’re clearly not out of the woods, there’s plenty of work to be done, but we have a good start and it’s really gratifying that so many people care about us and the work that we’re doing.”

He acknowledged that they also have a lot of Foundation partners who want to step up and support the organization. “We haven’t seen the money come in yet but they’re going through the steps .There’s support for non-profits but it’s not really enough I’m hopeful.”

Rein and Shine hosts an annual spring fundraiser that usually funds them for most of the year, where they sell tables to corporate sponsors for brunch and feature speakers, including the Mayor of Charleston. In the past they’ve raised up to $30,000 but with events canceled they are struggling to come up with funding for feed and veterinary care. 

Gallop NYC. Photo by Stephanie Verzi. 

“We’re doing gofundme.com, we’ve got a little over $3k from that; another donor made a contribution and my husband did a Facebook fundraiser for his birthday, but this is when we usually have our annual fundraiser,” Tallman said. “Last year we started a golf tournament, and that may be canceled, and of course we aren’t giving any lessons.” 

She continued, “This isn’t fun for anybody; none of us are getting paid, we’re all 1099 employees and we’re all struggling to figure out this unemployment thing. None of this is easy. Myself and my barn manager and two instructors are full-time employees and of course they don’t get paid if they’re not teaching. Until they open schools and big things like that I don’t think Windwood will consider opening, and we’re at their mercy - we are on their property and don’t pay rent to be there, so we have to follow their rules.”

REINS is similarly funded by program fees, grants, fund raiser and donations. They have 25 people on staff, with four full managers/directors that are still working and ten part-time staff working with reduced hours.  

They also had to cancel a major fundraising event, “Horses, Hats & Hope: A Kentucky Derby Party” given that the Kentucky Derby was postponed, and they will also probably also have to cancel their annual golf tournament in June.  “We can survive this for now,” said Huber. “However, if our largest fundraiser, our Annual Country Hoedown on October 10th is cancelled, we will feel that the worst. We are considering making this a virtual fundraiser if the need arises. This usually is attended by over 750 guests, so I’m not sure how it will work just yet.” 

Huber said that they applied for the PPP (Payroll Protection Program) Loan, however, they have not yet heard if they will receive a payment. ‘We’re hoping more funding is coming as we haven’t been denied yet.”

With so much hanging in the balance, Huber said that they have been trying to focus on the positives. “For us, the best part is that we are making use of this time to complete projects that we never have time to tackle.  It’s also been really helpful to be in frequent communication and on webinars with others in and out of the industry. It’s a day by day challenge and creativity is the name of the game.”

Wilson also remains optimistic about the future. “We’re coming back,” he said. “I know that a lot of small businesses and non-profits are having a hard time, and there’s some question about their future. But I know we’re going to go upstate, bring the horses back, and we’ll allow New Yorkers to ride again. There’s a lot of sadness right now but there’s a hopefulness too. This is not forever - this is not our new normal, this is our right now. That day will be here soon and I’m really excited about it.”

Feature photo Stephanie Verzi. 

Written by Amber Heintzberger

Amber Heintzberger is a freelance writer and photographer who is currently on lock down in South Orange, NJ with her husband and two children. When she's not busy writing and "homeschooling" the kids, she is enjoying backyard gardening, socially distant running and setting up jumping courses for the kids so that she can pretend she's still going to horse shows this spring.