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WITH ABIDING HOPE: As the pandemic ravaged New York, a therapeutic riding program saved their herd and the future 

By Katie Navarra

Charm and Rosebud peer through the

slatted sides of the horse trailer that

has come to take them home, eyes

level and unwavering, a steady

presence even now, when so much

has changed.

Home. Back to the streets of New York,

to the therapeutic riding center where

they are the healing guardians of frail

bodies and psyches. The steady clip

of their hooves on the sidewalk, heads

lowered, back to the stalls they left in

late March when the spread of coronavirus closed the city and the barn.

There are new signs on the big double doors leading into the GallopNYC stables in Queens. “Help us Keep our Barn Safe.” “Wear a Face Covering.” “Wash your Hands Often.” “Practice Social Distancing.”



​The plastic water buckets, the sweet green of hay, the weathered wood, all familiar. But beyond these walls, the world has shifted in the pandemic.

 On March 20, 2020, with New York the epicenter of the outbreak, lessons halted at GallopNYC, which specializes in therapeutic riding for people with emotional, developmental and physical challenges.

Without lessons, there was no income.

The program maintains about 40 horses.

When Executive Director James Wilson

realized that the closure of non-essential

businesses mandated by New York

state would not end anytime soon, he

made a difficult decision: To save the

15-year-old stable and ensure riders

would have a place to come back to,

he cut expenses by sending the horses

away. One by one they boarded a trailer

for a private farm upstate.

“As an organization we decided it was

cheaper to take care of the horses out

of town,” Wilson said. “We have a partner upstate who retires horses for us, and she took 25 of our horses. We let them have a vacation, be out in a field, eat grass and enjoy sunshine.”

Some of the horses received an early retirement while others waited for a return to serving their riders. Barn staff visited the herd and reported that, after a few weeks in the country, they were all fat, happy and relaxed.

 Wilson said he wasn’t surprised by how quickly the horses adapted to their new surroundings; what he did not expect was the outpouring of support when GallopNYC launched a fundraising campaign called #feedtheherd. The campaign kicked off in late March and reminded the community that it costs $275 a month to feed and care for each horse – and a total of $55,000 every month for the program to survive, even without lessons.

 Donations poured in after a New York Times reporter captured the staff’s tearful goodbyes to the horses as they loaded up for the trip north. Nearly 85% of the $40,000 goal was achieved in just one month. 

“People that we don’t know, people from all parts of the country and the world have supported our horses and the work that we do,” Wilson said. “That’s really encouraging and resonates with a lot of people.”

The measure of support helped to fill the silence. Normally, GallopNYC serves 500 riders with disabilities each week. A space that was usually full of laughter, excitement and activity was quiet.

“Early this spring it was disconcerting to tell people they couldn’t come to the barn. I was really afraid people would forget about us,” Wilson said. “My team was excited about finding ways to remind people we were still here and that we were all in this together.”

Lesson instructors led programs

for young riders to encourage them

to get up and move their body and

keep exercising their muscles the

way they did while riding. They

hosted arts and crafts and book

clubs for children and adults.

GallopNYC also serves veterans,

offering both a riding program

and one that includes horse care

and groundwork. Wilson said they

found the vets were especially

positive about the remote

programming and Zoom video

options.

In some ways, Wilson added, he feels the online interaction has created even stronger ties with the community, and certain of the programming will continue as GallopNYC fully returns to riding.

“It is weird trying to teach horseback riding over the internet,” he said. “But essentially we are focused on trying to improve the lives of people with disabilities even when we can’t be together.”

In early June, GallopNYC began again: One-on-one, with lessons for those riders who are fairly independent. Riders who need physical support began to return in late summer, although because of health precautions, any side walking assistance – walking on either side of the rider to help them stay balanced and secure in the saddle – had to come from the individual’s family or “pod” rather than volunteers.

“Before the pandemic, we would ask volunteers to sidewalk with our riders that needed physical support,” Wilson said. “In today's environment, however, we will not ask volunteers to put themselves this close to another person.”

Private lessons replaced group instruction although, as Wilson noted, “horses by definition are social distanced because you do not ride on top of each other. Everyone is masked and feels safe at the barn.”

By the first week of September, with all the horses back home, the lesson program was able to accommodate each of its riders, including the 100 or so recreational riders whose classes help to underwrite the therapeutic work.

Still, the financial effects continue to be felt, as they do at many non-profits across New York, and lasting support is essential. One community challenge asked sponsors to donate 300 lessons to Gallop’s scholarship fund. The annual Barn Dance fundraiser, typically held in the spring, was rescheduled three times before becoming an online event in late September, celebrating the horses’ return to the city and the program’s return to riding.

But while the ‘new normal’ still changes every day, one thing remains the same: Horses are healers, emotionally and physically. Keeping GallopNYC open means that the children, adults and veterans who have learned new skills and independence through riding, will have access to the barn and its horses for years to come.

 "We’re beginning to see the kids and adult

riders here again and that’s my favorite part,”

Wilson said. “Our community supporters,

staff and volunteers are important to making

that possible.”

A sliver of sunlight slips through the wooden

slats of his stall and settles on Charm. The

gentle roan looks up, mid-munch, a few wisps

of hay dangling from his mouth.

 Journey’s end.

Home at last.