Riding soothes souls of students saddled with hardships


In everyday life, they walk with leg braces, refuse to utter a word to anybody except their parents or are wracked with such anxiety that mundane tasks become insurmountable problems.

But on May 21, the students in the Flying Manes Therapeutic Riding program, a non-profit that operates out of the Riverdale Equestrian Centre in Van Cortlandt Park, sat upright in the saddle and steered their horses through green plastic cones. Under the early morning sun, they urged their steeds into a light trot, smiling at their parents as they rode past.

Flying Manes, which began in 2009, is open to children, teens and adults with autism, mutism, multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, post-traumatic stress syndrome, severe anxiety and other cognitive, behavioral, emotional and physical challenges. Participants learn how to ride horses at various speeds, go through a variety of drills and steer. They also learn about horses’ diet and care. 

Parents interviewed on the morning of May 21, said the program has improved their children’s posture, confidence and speech. Many said the activity offers a fun, soothing respite in lives riddled with hardships and obstacles.

“I think [the horses] are more therapeutic than some people because they understand and have that patience,” said Bronxite Florina Ionescu as her 18-year-old daughter, Mira, rode her chestnut horse in a slow circle. 

Ms. Ionescu said when her daughter, who has obsessive compulsive disorder, selective mutism and severe anxiety, started Flying Manes three years ago, the hardness of the saddle upset her so much she couldn’t get on the horse. So the Flying Manes staff gave Mira a pad to sit on and she has been riding ever since. Ms. Ionescu said Mira even rode last year in 104-degree weather, despite her extreme dislike of heat.

The half-hour Saturday-morning classes are able to provide individualized attention because they are small, with only about four children in each of them. Participants are paired with one of the stable’s calmer, slower horses and three volunteers. One stands in front and helps lead the horse while the other two walk on either side, helping the rider focus, maintain posture or help the children steer. An instructor, certified through the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association, a non-profit that promotes equine-related therapies, stands in the middle of the outdoor ring, giving pointers, setting up drills and offering encouraging words. 

“It’s just … really cool because you can tell a lot of them really love it,” said one of the program’s volunteers, Emma Banasiak, a freshman at the Bronx High School of Science. 

The current Flying Manes session has 27 participants, grouped with similar ages and personalities to encourage them to make friends, and 70 volunteers, who learn about the program via word-of-mouth, the Internet, listservs or disability organizations. Each of the three, eight-week sessions, which begin in the spring and run through the summer, cost $600 but many families qualify for financial assistance. 

Queens resident Hector Rivera said the program helped his 7-year-old son, Daniel, communicate better.

“This makes him happy and he whispers a little louder,” Mr. Rivera said.

Although Daniel has mild autism and doesn’t like to speak, he shook his head vigorously and smiled when his father asked if he enjoys the program. 

Parent David Getzler arrived at the stable before 9 a.m., tightly gripping his daughter, Sarah, who has difficulty walking. He held onto her waist as they crossed the uneven lawn and didn’t let go even when the 12-year-old was holding the fence around the paddock. Mr. Getzler didn’t let go as Sarah walked into the ring and greeted her horse, Lady. He didn’t let go when three other volunteers came over to help. But when Sarah picked up a brush and began running it over Lady’s neck, her father began to back up slowly. He stopped at the fence, leaning against it and smiling broadly at his daughter. 

For more information or to fill out an application, e-mail info@flyingmanes.org, call 718-679-5354 or go to www.flyingmanes.org.

Flying Manes Therapeutic Riding, Riverdale Equestrian Centre, Van Cortlandt Park, horses,