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'Purple Pony' proves therapeutic for children with a range of disabilities

By Virginia Kropf

Natalie Keller, of Darien, looked long and hard about the benefits of horsemanship before enrolling her daughter Sara in the Purple Pony Therapeutic Horsemanship program.

Sara, 9, was born with Down syndrome. When her parents, who live in Colombia, South America, gave her up because they couldn’t care for her, Keller adopted Sara and brought her to the United States at the age of 4 1/2.

Keller was searching for anything which would help Sara when she discovered the Purple Pony Therapeutic Horsemanship Program, which is run at Mat and Sharon Gartz’s Double G Ranch near Bergen.

Therapeutic riding has been in existence for centuries, according to information provided by Beth Allen, who does publicity for the Purple Pony program. When a woman who was disabled by polio won a silver medal for dressage at the Helsinki Olympics in 1952, therapeutic horsemanship was established as being of pertinent value to handicapped individuals.

Horsemanship helps with balance and coordination, Keller said. She has been bringing Sara for little more than a year.

“She’d never been on a horse,” Keller said. “The first week, she jumped off. We told her next week she had to stay on longer than this week, and with death grips on her volunteer, she stayed on.”

Purple Pony is a member of what was the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association, founded in 1968 in Virginia. In 2011, the organization changed its name to the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International, with headquarters in Denver.

The local Purple Pony group was organized in the spring of 2005 by Lee Morgan and Lorrie Renker of Spencerport. Lessons grew to about 30 riders, but shortly after receiving approval as a 501(c) 3 corporation, Morgan and Renker ended their partnership. The board of directors postponed programming for the summer of 2007 until they could reorganize and offer lessons again.

In 2010, the program moved to a farm in Churchville, where it was run for three years. Their most recent move to Double G Ranch was made in November 2013, where they continue to teach barn and equine safety, the anatomy of the horse, proper care of the horse and the method for mounting and riding the horse.

Through the use of games and mounted exercises, Purple Pony’s goal is to contribute to the improvement of an individual’s confidence, social interaction, self-esteem, muscle tone and cognitive development.

Karen Reeverts, of Le Roy, and Lynette Short are instructors for Purple Pony, which is one of 700 similar groups in the United States.

Information from Purple Pony indicates horsemanship has proven to provide physical benefits to those suffering from a wide range of disabilities, such as mental retardation, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, spinal cord injury, stroke, cerebral palsy, autism, brain injuries, and more, because horseback riding gently and rhythmically moves the body and internal organs in a manner similar to that of the human walking gait. Horseback riding helps to normalize muscle tone, improve posture and build up the cardiovascular system.

“The experience provides a bond and unconditional love,” Reeverts said.

“Sara loves it now,” her mother said.

Each rider is accompanied by a volunteer who leads the horse, another who holds the reins, and a third who hangs on to the saddle, making the rider feel safe.

“They started Sara by holding on to each side of the saddle, then maybe next time it was her foot,” Keller said. “Then when she was comfortable, they let go and just walk beside her.”

Riders learn the simple commands of squeezing their legs against the horse’s sides to make it start up. They go through exercises to turn the horse and they have games on horseback, led by the instructor in the center of the stable.

Keller’s brother also has special needs and after seeing how the program helped Sara, their mother Becky enrolled him in Purple Pony.

John and Mary Volpe, of Attica, have had custody of their grandson, 13-year-old Andrew Bennett, since he was born. He has sensory problems, Mary said, and horsemanship has helped keep him in perspective and keep his attention.

“It calms him and we’ve seen a big improvement in his posture,” Mary said.

ARC helps the family with reimbursement for costs of the therapeutic horsemanship, she said.

Bob and Hillary Laughton, of Hamlin, have been bringing their daughter Taylor, 14, who has epilepsy, to Purple Pony for five years.

“This is her favorite thing to do,” Bob Laughton said. “It helps with her coordination and self-esteem. Before this, we couldn’t find anything she excelled at.”

Twenty-four riders were enrolled in the spring class, which ends this week. They have been meeting for an hour every Tuesday and Friday for the past six weeks.

Reeverts said classes will take a break for the summer and resume the first week in September.

On Aug. 11, the Purple Pony staff will sponsor a huge indoor garage sale at 8321 Lake Street Road, Le Roy, to help with expenses of running the program. The sale will run from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. in a huge indoor arena, with plenty of off-street parking.

A chicken barbecue will take place and there will be face painting, balloon art, and cotton candy.

Anyone with clean, gently used items who would like to donate them to the sale should call (585) 880-1096 for information. Scheduled drop off dates are all day July 21 and 27 and evenings on Aug. 3 and 4. They request no large appliances, televisions, computers, upholstered furniture or clothing.

In addition to the instructors, the staff of Purple Pony includes Dan Kilker, chairman of the board; Gail Ehmann, volunteer coordinator; Terry Greenwood, treasurer; Lynnette Short and Patricia Famiglietti, equine care; and Dot Gulardo, associate.

Top photo: Instructor Karen Reeverts with the Purple Pony Therapeutic Horsemanship program checks the stirrups for Rob Keller of Darien, as volunteers wait to lead him around the ring at Double G Ranch.

Photos by Virginia Kropf.

Julia Menzie, a senior at Byron-Bergen High School, has been volunteering with the Purple Pony Therapeutic Horsemanship program for four years. She loves horses and helping people.

Volunteers guide Taylor Laughton, 14, in backing her horse between two poles during an exercise at Purple Pony Therapeutic Horsemanship program.

Sara Keller, 9, of Darien is led around the ring by volunteers at a recent session of the Purple Pony Therapeutic Horsemanship program.

Riders line up waiting for instructor Karen Reeverts, walking at left, to lead them through a game during a recent class of therapeutic horsemanship.

Seated, from left, are Karen Reeverts of Le Roy, an instructor with the Purple Pony Therapeutic Horsemanship program, Beth Allen and Bruce Rychwalski. Matt and Sharon Gartz are owners of Double G Ranch in Bergen, where the horse program takes place. Standing, from left, are staff members Mary Lou LaPointe, Amy Condoluci, Dale White, Sandy Player, Dan Kilker (board president), Rex Milner and volunteer coordinator Gail Ehman.

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