Pal-O-Mine Equestrian, founded in 1995 by Lisa A. Gatti, is home to an inspiring therapeutic riding center located in Islandia, New York. Seeing 400 patients a week, Pal-O-Mine is equipped with 8 full-time staff, 40 part-time, and 100 volunteers who come through weekly! Their programs include; Adaptive Riding & Unmounted Horsemanship, Equine Assisted Learning, Equine Assisted Psychotherapy, Speech & Occupational Therapy,
and Military Programs.
The team at PonyApp had the amazing opportunity of spending a day shadowing Lisa as she taught a long-time student, gave us an incredible tour of their facility, and had their team lead us through our own Equine Assisted Psychotherapy which follows the prescribed model created by Eagala. Inc. Eagala, a worldwide pathfinder with incorporating horses into mental health treatment, works to certify mental health professionals and equine specialists so that they can help spread the magic love and healing we have all come to love and enjoy from our horses!
After hearing many success stories of their model used at Pal-O-Mine and experiencing a session ourselves, the girls at PonyApp wanted to share just how special our time was.
Non-pony people (the Ponyapp team’s version of a Muggle) always ask me if “horses are smart.” After the instinctual cringe, I begin my routine response sharing how horses are both powerhouse and prey, strong and sensitive, making them not only smart but perhaps one of the most intuitive creatures on earth. Each time I run through this exercise, I remember once again the beauty of my four-legged friends and, sadly, how immune to it one can become running from show to show, ring to ring, horse to horse. Pal-O-Mine brings me back.
The first time I was fortunate enough to visit the program, it was un-fortunately 100 degrees in the middle of New York summer. Walking around all day outside, sweating through my jeans, was frankly the last way I thought I wanted to spend my Saturday. Yet, after meeting the program’s founder, Lisa Gatti, the warm Pal-o-mine staff and the energized program participants, I left that day more appreciative of a life filled with horses than ever before.
“Volunteer,” in the case of my time at Pal-O-Mine, is a truly misleading word. It suggests a level of giving that doesn’t feel accurate as I get to learn something new in each of the sessions I witness. Whether it is categorized as equine-assisted psychotherapy, adaptive riding, hippo-therapy or one of the several other offerings that I won’t even pretend to rattle off (talk to Lisa for that), the progress is clear across students of all ages.
One of the first lessons that I observed included a young man with cerebral palsy. From the moment he was lifted onto the most dependable blond Haflinger, his muscles began to visibly relax. Each lap around the ring saw him sit up straighter, grab the reins, loosen his legs into a perfect equitation position. The difference in 30 minutes was staggering, and it was only a snapshot into the years of work that he had tackled with the Pal-O-Mine team.
Hearing Lisa and the team recount the inspirational stories of many students such as this example seems at times like only the stuff that happens in movies. The reality is that I can only imagine the advances they’ve seen over years of hard work, as we saw just that day the transformation of a cranky, stressed out, all-my-grand-prix-horses-are-lame little Lucy emerge into to an “anything is possible” sort of character. Anyone who has simply sat in the stall with their horse for hours on a bad day knows what kind of rebuilding work I’m talking about.
The program’s motto could therefore not be more accurate: “horses helping people.” I’d like to think that it is watching horses help people that in turn helps me (the “volunteer”) with whatever I’m going through, but that would again be inaccurate. It is not necessarily the successful, visible progress in each lesson (the help) that is most moving, but rather the distinct process by which a horse adapts to each circumstance, each person, and begins its healing.
I’ve always said that whatever ails you, horses are the cure. Pal-o-mine equestrian might just be the most wonderful medium I’ve seen for facilitating this healing so far, but it exists in so many forms across the world. Pony person or non-pony person, I recommend getting involved.
Just like so many others, horses have always been an escape for me. An instant breath of fresh air despite any chaos ensuing elsewhere in this crazy life! In all honesty, though, my mind typically stays within the bubble of “show jumping” and I forget the effect horses can have on others without them actually being directly connected to the sport. After my day at Pal-O-Mine and hearing the amazing stories of those who have worked within the Eagala model, my view of horses and their effect on mental health for all was profoundly broadened!
The basis of the Eagala model is that the patients simply learn best by doing. They pair you up with a “herd” of horses and from there a bond is formed. They don’t intervene at all except for “check-ups” mostly at the end of sessions where they open up a space for their patients to discuss what’s going on in their lives, but other than that, the patients get to just enjoy their time with their heard in pretty much whatever way feels comfortable to them. For me, who spends hours bonding with my own horses, it was so seamless to just cozy up next to a cute pony and instantly feel calm. For others, it is not quite so instantaneous, but after consistent visits, these patients experience that same bond us equestrians love so dearly, and even better, experience deep healing and growth within themselves.
I absolutely love that a program like this exists. I literally could not function without the love and relationship I experience with my horses, so it is really so incredible that the team at Eagala has come together to create this model which allows those who may never have the opportunity to feel that connection with a horse do so in such a powerful way!
It was a really awesome experience for me to get back to helping out at a program like this. When we were little ‘ponygirls’, my sister Jillian and I would volunteer at a center called Lift Me Up near where we lived in Virginia. We would help with the horses and sessions, and then we would bake horse treats at home and sell them at horse shows to donate money! My mom also has a role at Rainbow Therapeutic, so it has been in the family that we love the positive impact horses can have on people’s lives.
I hadn’t been involved in a bit, and it was a memorable Saturday to be able to meet the people who run the Pal-o-mine program to hear about and see first-hand what a difference they have been making for individual lives. Hearing the stories of the horses and how they got there (shout out to Brook Ledge for helping to ship some of them!), and how long they have been a part of the program at the center was pretty incredible.
With the Eagala model, they don’t tell them anything, it’s go off and make your own story and being able to sit quietly with the horses takes out the noise, and simplifies the interactions with life.
A few of the many things that struck me from the visit:
- How amazing it is that horses can give people with disabilities the power to walk again when they no longer can
- The variety of small ponies and gentle giants, who are paired up with the right people based on needs
- How the closeness with the animals enabled students to open up as people and make observations on their own lives
- The importance of volunteering and the respect I have for people who are a part of these programs that create joy and genuine help for people, what a difference it makes!
For more information on these amazing organizations, please follow the links below.