Because of the rainy weather, the clients who came to Seaview Equine Learning Facility in Clermont one recent day could not ride the horses, but that did not keep them from interacting and working with them.
SELF is a nonprofit corporation that offers mounted as well as unmounted equine learning and therapy programs for clients. The challenges that are successfully addressed by equine therapy range from autism, cerebral palsy and Down syndrome to abuse and anxiety.
One of SELF's founders, Pat Moran, said horses just know when they are working with a client who needs therapy - and likewise, they know when they are around an abusive person.
"Poco just knows - the horses have a sense with people," she said. "It is not unusual for a horse to be around an abuser and know."
Poco is one of the therapy horses used in SELF's therapy program.
Jeff DiAntonio, 28, of Wildwood, has been coming to Star Hollow Stables, where SELF operates, for about a year. He is part of a state Department of Health Services program in the Division of Developmental Disabilities. DiAntonio usually rides the same pony, Rachel, although the inclement weather prevented it this day.
Instead, DiAntonio and another client in the DDD program, Tracy Musarra, created a working obstacle course from a diagram that Moran had given the two. The duo needed to pick a horse, harness it, and then lead the animal through the course after it was completed.
"The (unmounted) program helps those with developmental disabilities with spatial recognition," Moran said. "It builds teamwork when they have to work together. We let them learn by having them work through the problem."
While SELF is small - it serves about five clients - it is steadily growing. The team, who along with Moran consists of cofounders Stephanie Puerta, a licensed clinical social worker, and Cheryl Moore, a certified Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association specialist, has plans to build a new barn in Avalon for SELF. The relocation is funded by a $39,000 grant that was awarded to the nonprofit by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
In this way, SELF hopes to help more clients, such as Liam Winneker, 5, of Mays Landing, who started riding three weeks ago. He has autism, and his mother, Kelly, said that as soon as Liam got on top of a horse, he was "calm and happy."
"We heard that therapy horses are very good for kids with autism," Winneker said. "He was not afraid to be around horses at all. He was quite ecstatic when he met them."
DiAntonio has been riding since he started coming to Star Hollow stables. He plans to compete in the Special Olympics in the equestrian category, a program SELF plans to organize. Misty Bratton, of Cape May, is leading the Special Olympics effort for Cape May, Atlantic and Cumberland counties. She has been an equestrian Special Olympics coach since 1997.
"There is no equestrian program here at this time for the Special Olympics," Bratton said. "It is open to residents of all three counties who meet the criteria."
DiAntonio is already a Special Olympics medalist in skiing, track and field, soccer and basketball. But he is excited about the prospect of riding Rachel in the Special Olympics.