The Healing Horse: Two Stories
In Central New York, a farm where healing grows 

By Renée K. Gadoua

NY Horse Contributing Editor

             Alice Root describes the relationship between horses and humans as magical and spiritual, with cultural roots as deep as ancient Greece

and Rome where mythology told of

half-human, half-horse centaurs.

             “The horse is magnificent, beautiful,

responsive,” Root said. “In their eyes and

their movement, there are things the human

body just yearns for.”

            Over two decades, she’s seen that

magical relationship unfold, first as a pioneer

 in the use of equine therapy – more recently

as the recipient of that magic herself.

            “I’ve seen children and adults who

have never spoken full sentences, maybe

even didn’t have words, speak for the first

time on the back of a horse,” Root said.

 “I’ve seen parents undone by this.”

            Her work began about 20 years ago,

when she started an equine-assisted therapy

program to help at-risk youth. She was breeding donkeys on her farm in Vernon Center at the time, and thought to put the animals and young people together.

            “The effect of the animals on these kids was extraordinary,” Root said. “These children, who were used to manipulating their

environment, could no longer do

so. To communicate with a

donkey, you have to have a

conversation. You can’t use force.

You have to see what they want.”

            Despite their headstrong

ways, donkeys are also very

affectionate, offering comfort and

attention to their young caretakers.

For the first time in their lives,

Root recalled, these kids had a

give-and-take relationship and

developed social skills.

             As demand grew, the program expanded and moved to Verona, evolving once again when Root began to contemplate retirement and sought a permanent home for the work she’d begun. She found that home at Upstate Cerebral Palsy, where she was a long-time volunteer in the equine program.

            Root Farm became an affiliate program of Upstate Caring Partners, Inc., which includes UCP, opening in October 2015 in Sauquoit, near Utica. The 100-plus acre campus includes an equine-assisted therapy center and vocational and recreational programs.

            “It’s an incredibly uplifting experience to go there and see what is going on,” said Root, who serves on the farm’s nine-member board. The new Root Farm offers hippotherapy, adaptive and recreational riding and vaulting and has expanded to agricultural programs, producing flowers, vegetables, eggs, honey and maple syrup that are sold at local farmer’s markets.

             “We really believed in the benefits of this treatment approach,” said Jeremy Earl, a physical therapist who is the farm’s executive director.

            At the core of equine-assisted therapy is the way that the movement of a horse walking parallels the movement of the human pelvis. “If you have a person who cannot walk normally, or not at all, that person on the horse

is walking,” Root explained.

“The brain does not know the

difference. Walking is moving

at a very basic, instinctual


            Although neither

equestrians nor medical experts

can explain exactly how and

why, the walking motion

appears to have therapeutic

benefits. “In the walking

movement, the brain makes

certain connections we take

for granted as walkers,”

she said. “Who knows what happens in the brain that connects with other things that people with disabilities are not engaged with.”

            Anecdotal evidence is strong, Earl agreed. “We have a gentleman with Parkinson’s who believes he continues to be independent because of hippotherapy,” he said. “Then there are people who say they just feel better when they leave here.”

            For many stories, this would be the end. But then, about five years ago, Root was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, which manifested primarily as balance and coordination problems. After years of preaching its benefits, Root herself looked to the healing power of horses.

            “I knew at a gut level there is nothing better for balance issues than to be on the back of a horse,” she said. “I had a lifetime of experience to know it. I’ve probably been carrying this illness a long time. The fact that I’ve been on horseback all my life may be why it took so long for the illness to show itself.”

            Her prescription: Spend as much time as possible in the saddle. She gave up pleasure driving and took up long-distance riding, spending six months in Florida so she can ride all year. She does a 50-mile endurance ride about every three weeks with Slammer – Comet’s Grand Slam, a purebred Arabian.

            “You are with your horse for so long, with beautiful countryside, with rough terrain. There’s at least one overnight. You’re bonding with your horse. It’s wonderful.”

            The long rides allow horses to do “what they’re born to do: to be wild and to move in a natural setting,” Root said. “The horses are exposed to a much more natural lifestyle than in a stable. This is a kind of freedom that I didn’t know.”

            She’s conditioning three other horses, with the hope of taking on a 100-mile trip by the time she turns 65, in two years. “The horses have to build up the metabolism and muscle structure and endurance,” she explained. “The same goes for people.”

            Since her diagnosis, her condition remains stable – a status she attributes to her time on horses. “When my body is in that saddle, there is nowhere in the world I would rather be,” she said. “It’s being in that moment exactly where I need to be. My body and my mind and my soul are so happy, and how grateful I am to have discovered that.”

            And so there is this: Her health allows her to talk about the value of equine therapy from both a theoretical and personal perspective.

            “I get to promote it from inside and out,” Root said. “That’s a gift for the program to say this really works. One hundred miles, here I come.”

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SUNY Cobleskill starts therapeutic horsemanship program

          SUNY Cobleskill has launched the first therapeutic horsemanship degree program in New York. The four-year program, which started this fall, will lead to a Bachelor of Technology degree.

            Students  will study

a broad range of subjects,

from equine science to

education and psychology,

while working with other

students, volunteers, clients,

parents, teachers and

therapists through partnerships

with community organizations.

Through a combination of

coursework and hands-on

training, they’ll learn how

equine therapy uses

interaction with horses to

help people with special needs                                                                                                   overcome physical, cognitive and emotional challenges.

            The new program “weds a passion for equine studies with a drive to help others,” said SUNY Cobleskill President Dr. Marion A. Terenzio. “We’re proud to bring our expertise in horsemanship together with the humanities to offer this valuable new program in New York State,”

            At the end of the four years, students will be prepared to pursue instructor certification with the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH), enter the field of equine therapy, or continue with graduate studies. SUNY Cobleskill faculty will assist students in obtaining “Instructor in Training” status through PATH, guide them to complete PATH-required mentoring hours on campus, and accompany students to off-site PATH certification exams.  

            The college is one of less than a dozen nationwide to offer certification by PATH International as part of a degree program.

            Students enrolled

in the degree program will

study in a variety of

academic areas, starting

with the foundations of

equine-assisted therapy,

and then drawing on the

subjects of equine science,

education, psychology,

sociology, recreation and

sport. Students will have

the opportunity to apply

their course work in

therapeutic riding

instruction in a client-based

setting every semester.

            As part of the program students will also:

  •  Learn equine care and management, riding skills and instruction, and equine behavior.
  • Work with carefully selected horses while interacting with community volunteers, parents, teachers, and therapists.
  • Learn to select, manage and train horses for use in therapeutic horsemanship.
  • Work in collaboration with pre-schools for children with special needs, the ARC, on-campus veteran affairs office, and the community at large.
  • Make a difference in the lives of a wide range of clients, including young children, at-risk adolescents, adults with special needs, and veterans by using the horse as a tool to improve focus, coordination, self-confidence, patience, and control.

             The therapeutic horsemanship program is based at the college’s Equine Center, which has stabling for 60 horses, an indoor arena, and two outdoor rings.

          Students enrolled in the program also have the opportunity to enhance their riding and horsemanship skills by enrolling in riding and training courses and through participation in the Varsity Hunt Seat and Western IHSA riding teams.