From world-class shows to riding stables nestled in between skyscrapers, equestrianism has a long and storied history in New York City. But for the past decade, GallopNYC has brought a different type of horse culture to the metropolis. The nonprofit organization provides therapeutic horsemanship to people with developmental, emotional, social and physical challenges across several facilities in the city’s boroughs.
“Our vision now is to make therapeutic horsemanship available to all people with disabilities in New York City,” said Suzy Marquard, a longtime volunteer and past president of the group’s board of directors. “It’s pretty aspirational, but that guides us.”
Board member and former executive director Alicia Kershaw first learned about using horses for therapy during a stint in Hong Kong in 1998, and when she returned to New York, she started volunteering at a small program located at the Claremont Riding Academy on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
“It was a tiny program—about nine kids a week,” said Kershaw. “A group of us decided we wanted to do more and better. It was one of those, ‘How hard can it be?’ moments. It’s been good, but it’s been hard!”
GallopNYC was officially started in 2005, but the program took a few more years to really get off the ground.
“We didn’t get regular lessons going until 2007 because we had problems finding stables to accommodate us,” said Kershaw. “Then for a while, we were like, ‘Where are all the riders?’ Suddenly word of mouth took off.”
Marquard joined GallopNYC as a volunteer instructor just as the organization began offering lessons at its first base, which was at Brooklyn’s Kensington Stables. She rode as a junior, and her family owned a Thoroughbred farm outside Lexington, Kentucky. After taking a lengthy break from horses as an adult, she returned to riding, and her father sent her a horse needing a career outside of racing.
“He arrived just a couple days after 9/11, and it really cemented the idea that horses can be healing—to have that interaction with a horse while your emotions are raw,” Marquard said. “I found it was better for me to go riding on the weekend when I was working as a lawyer than to go play golf or something. It was more effective.”
A Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship-certified instructor, Marquard taught some of the first GallopNYC students.
“We had three riders lined up,” she said. “When I saw the effect it had on the riders, I was just hooked. It just confirmed my belief that riding is therapeutic for everybody.”
Big City, Big Breakthroughs
Originally the organization operated out of one stable in Brooklyn, using that facility’s horses to teach lessons—many of which it conducted in adjacent Prospect Park with permission from the city. But GallopNYC now teaches out of several locations, including one barn the organization owns in Forest Hills, Queens, which is adjacent to a 3-mile bridle path, and another it has exclusive use of with a nine-year agreement in Howard Beach, Queens.
Staff trailer horses from Howard Beach to Prospect Park four days a week, about 30 minutes away, to serve the approximately 100 students there. The organization holds those lessons on the park’s Bowling Green field.
“It’s fenced with a wrought-iron fence, and it’s thankfully too small for a soccer field, so there aren’t a lot of other people wanting to use it,” said Kershaw. “The fencing is safe, and it’s green; it has gardens on the edge. We go around in a circle basically and use cones to mark off whatever area we want to ride in.”
The program also utilizes other facilities in the Bronx and in Brooklyn. Each week they serve about 450 students, but there are hundreds more on a waiting list.
“We began to branch out because we knew there was a huge population of people in New York City who could be served by this and could benefit from working with horses,” said Marquard, who received the 2016 EQUUS Foundation Humanitarian Award.
“The demand is huge,” added Kershaw. “The waiting list is not a good thing. My staff hates telling people they can’t ride. We have doubled and plan to double again.”
GallopNYC relies on financial, product and service donations to run and maintain their facilities and keep students with financial need in the saddle. About 80 percent of students have their lessons subsidized by donations.
The organization is also always looking for volunteers in a huge range of roles, from maintaining the barn and caring for horses to assisting with lessons and even serving on the board of directors.
Depending on the student, lessons might include only groundwork, or students might sit on the horse with a side-walker on each side and a leader at the horse’s head, or they might ride more independently. But no matter what they do in their sessions, the students reap huge rewards from time at the barn.
“We had a kid who was just getting into first grade, and there were a lot of family issues; his mother was seriously ill,” said Kershaw. “When he came to us, he was about to be thrown out of school because he was such a troublemaker. He started riding and just adored it. He loved riding. His parents came and said, ‘Not only is he staying in school, but he’s gone up three levels in reading.’ He completely turned around. He was a kid on a negative course, and the feelings of self-confidence and empowerment and agency he got riding horses carried through to the rest of his life.”
GallopNYC staff and volunteers have also witnessed the first words of several students.
“We had one kid who did come to us with the diagnosis of being non-verbal on the [autism] spectrum, and we try really hard not to limit our expectations of our riders, so even if a child comes with a diagnosis of non-verbal, we do encourage them to communicate,” said Kershaw. “The instructor was saying to [the student], ‘Tell your horse to walk on,’ and his schoolteacher came running over saying, ‘He’s not verbal!’ and just as she got there, he said, ‘Walk on!’ At the end of his lesson, he got off and said, ‘Thanks a lot, buddy.’ Now his teachers know he can talk, and his parents know he can talk. It was really a breakthrough.”
GallopNYC is also home to an equestrian team that competes in the Long Island Horse Show Series for Riders with Disabilities, a girls’ empowerment program led by a mental health professional, a veterans’ leadership program, a hippotherapy program—which uses horses for targeted physical therapy—and many other programs for specific populations. They host a yearly on-site horse show to let students show off their skills to family and friends.
Last fall GallopNYC added a leadership program to its lineup.
“It’s a holistic program where they’re learning about responsibility and showing up on time and setting goals and being proactive and thinking about other people—all things we take for granted being horse riders,” said executive director James Wilson. “We’ve built this entire framework around these leadership skills for young people. It’s fun to watch these guys grow and learn about responsibility.”
Regardless of the facility, GallopNYC connects people in need with horses—and the organization will keep fulfilling that mission.
“Whatever the disability, the horse seems to have an answer,” Marquard said.
Changes In The Time Of COVID-19
In March when the COVID-19 crisis hit, GallopNYC sprang into action.
“We’ve very cognizant with people who are immunocompromised anyway; we spend a lot of time reminding parents if the kid’s sick don’t come to riding because they might get someone else sick,” said Wilson. “We were ready for something. Unfortunately we weren’t ready for what this has turned into.”
The group taught private lessons for a bit with parents serving as side-walkers. When the governor shut everything down, Wilson shipped 25 of the program’s 35 horses upstate, as it’s cheaper to keep horses on field board than in the city, and Wilson worried that if the subway shut down or staff got sick the horses would be stranded without someone to care for them.
In the meantime, GallopNYC programming has gone virtual, with the goal of keeping the community engaged, and they have sessions for seniors, veterans, disabled kids and their parents using Zoom, InstagramTV and Facebook Live.
“For kids we’re doing move-your-body [sessions],” said Wilson. “So it’s exercises and things you would do to get ready to ride a horse. We’re doing it so kids can learn how to stretch and build the muscles that will make you a better horse rider. We’re doing arts and crafts and reading, just doing things to give people in our community something to do because these kids are really underserved.”
Finances are a concern. Wilson and the team rescheduled a May fundraiser for June, but they need to reschedule for fall. They’ve been applying for funding to offset costs and have a GoFundMe that has raised over $30,000 to help support the horses. A timely piece in The New York Times also helped.
“A lot of these nonprofits can close up the building and pay for the rent and that’s it,” said Wilson. “But that’s not the way it works for us. We were fortunate to have that exposure, and it led to some good financial support from the community. Are we out of the woods? No of course not. But we’re hopeful about the short term, and I’m certainly positive about the long term. We’re going to come back out of this.”
This article first appeared in the July/August 2017 issue of The Chronicle of the Horse Untacked and has been updated with additional information.
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