A horse is a horse, of course…unless the horse is part of the equine therapy program at Pony Power Therapies in Mahwah.
Founder Dana Spett discovered therapeutic horseback riding while researching alternative therapies for her daughter with mild special needs. A social worker and lifelong equestrian, Dana saw the benefits of providing accessible equine and farm programs for individuals with special needs and people who simply require additional support.
“Our program is not diagnosis or age-specific,” says Dana. The 501(c)3 organization meets the needs of people on the autism spectrum as well as clients with cerebral palsy, chromosomal disorders, or any other medical fragility. Individuals who suffer from anxiety, depression, or addiction are welcome too. “Often we see people with a combination of these issues,” says Dana. “Sometimes people don’t get the services they need--especially if they don’t have a specific diagnosis. However, what we can do here supports all kinds of challenges.”
Pony Power works with children aged two-and-a-half through adulthood. “Many of our clients started with us as children and returned to us as adults,” says Dana. “Being with the horses is meaningful and is a positive early intervention for the special needs population.” Traditional state-funded programs end when an individual reaches 21, and many are left without resources. In addition, as their parents age, they may not have the ability to provide adequate stimulation or educational activities. “The population may be left sitting home doing nothing,” says Dana. “In a small way, we can provide this model for the community. Being involved with animals and nature adds to the quality of life for the client as well as parents and caregivers,” says Dana.
As a society that focuses on digital screens for a good part of the day, the experience of working with horses is life-changing. “Horses provide a non-verbal experience, says Dana. “We get a break from our heavy reliance on language as well as the use of screens. Kids on the spectrum are exceptionally engaged on the farm partly because language is not required.”
Pony Power is home to 22 seasoned therapy horses and ponies. Many have been donated or rescued, and each has been vetted to ensure proper temperament. Programs include independent and therapeutic riding and grooming and stable management. There are also non-riding programs that focus on other aspects of the farm, like nature trails and gardening activities.
The hands-on aspect of being out in nature offers the interventions of all five senses because the entire property is ADA-friendly and entirely accessible. Clients can ride, learn equine skills, and care for the horses. There are also goats, chickens, and a friendly pig named Ziggy!
Pony Power’s expansive gardening program is designed for accessibility with raised garden beds so that clients in wheelchairs can get some dirt under their nails. The organization seeks “garden buddies” to work with clients in the upcoming season and has developed a program of raising fresh produce to donate to underserved populations in Paterson through Oasis, A Haven for Women and Children. (See our May, 2021 issue).
Pony Power currently has ten staff members who direct 150 volunteers. “The age requirement to volunteer is 14, and our oldest volunteer is 83,” says Kerry Barrett, Development Director. Volunteers perform typical farm work, help clean stalls and paddocks, and work with small animals. Some of Pony Power’s clients have also joined the volunteer roster, representing a win-win for the organization.
The beautiful grounds and trails lend themselves to providing a peaceful place of respite for caregivers while their loved one participates in a program. Pony Power also offers riding time to siblings of clients so that they can enjoy time on the farm alongside their sister or brother.
Potential participants can inquire online and visit the farm to learn more about the programs offered, many of which may be customized. “Fees only cover 65% of the actual costs,” says Kerry. “We fundraise for the balance. We’ve developed a great base of community support, and many local organizations and businesses help to cover costs for clients. We’ve never turned anyone away.”
Corporations can arrange to use the beautiful grounds for team meetings, staff development, and social gatherings. Unique and refreshing volunteer opportunities provide endless possibilities for businesses to spark camaraderie and creativity among their employees.
“Being of service to others, you can find a place for yourself here. That highlights what nature can do,” says Dana.