GAIT Horses Get a New Look!
Photo caption: Rusty the horse is "all business" while his rider, Gideon, warms up for therapeutic riding class. Notice how Rusty's ears are turned towards the rider, listening for his rider's next move. "Side aides" Chrysann Calvert (left) and Sue Casey (right) provide support to the rider while "leader" Jan Lucciola is available to help guide Rusty, as needed.
This Fall, all of the horses at GAIT TRC in Milford, PA were wearing bright blue halters while conducting therapeutic services for people with special needs. When GAIT horses have their blue halters on, they are “working”, similar to a seeing eye dog with its vest designating that it is “working” and one is not to interfere by petting, treating or even allowing to sniff your hands. While working, the horses at GAIT TRC need to focus on their riders’ subtle voice and movement cues, balance the riders’ uneven weight, and compensate for their riders’ poor motor-planning in addition to accepting and processing prodigious external stimuli. The significance of the blue halters is to distinguish between when the horse is conducting therapeutic services versus non-therapeutic activities, such as exercising for conditioning purposes.
GAIT’s mission is “to improve the quality of life of children and adults with special needs through equine activities and therapies resulting in a more independent life in society”. The key word here is “equine,” for without the horse the results would not be as quick or dramatic.
The horses at GAIT are extensively screened, selected, and trained to do this type of work. Not all horses are suitable, nor do all horses enjoy or tolerate this type of work. Unlike service dogs which are bred and raised specifically for the work that they do, all of the horses at GAIT have had at least two to five other “jobs” in their lives. Police work, jumping, carriage pulling, and racing are a few examples. The diversity of their previous job experience gives the horses a special temperament, willingness, and intelligence to be able to organize their neuromuscular responses, control their reactions to emotions such as fear, and filter out unnecessary stimuli that would normally incite innate fight or flight responses. GAIT horses remain calm, centered, and focused. Thus, these horses are able to provide the safest possible therapeutic experience to their participants.
Blue is a soft, calming color that helps GAIT participants gain composure and confidence before even approaching the horse. The halters also remind everyone not to interfere with the horses while they are working. In order for the horse to promote healthy lifestyles, exercise, socialization and fun, we need to respect their workspace so that everyone can enjoy a positive emotional and physical experience.
For greater visibility and increased comfort for these working horses, GAIT is currently raising funds to purchase matching blue saddle pads.
Support GAIT - Order a sweatshirt today!
GAIT is selling zip hoodie sweatshirts with our new logo. The sweatshirts need to be preordered and cost $50. If you would like to order, please call, email, or facebook us with the size, quantity, and your contact information. We will confirm your order and contact you when they arrive.
Therapy horse Laura: A true friend to anyone in need
By Beth Brelje
Pocono Record Writer
March 05, 2013
Laura was a good listener. Tall, strong and quiet, with inviting brown eyes, people felt comfortable telling her their problems.
Through her own life experience, she knew that sometimes you have to carry a lot of heavy loads before finding your life's calling. For her, that calling was as a teacher and therapist.
Born in Pennsylvania's Amish country in 1987, Laura developed a sturdy work ethic at a young age by pulling farm wagons and plows.
Once known as war horses, Laura's breed, the Percheron draft horse, is as big as the Clydesdale, the draft breed made famous in Budweiser beer commercials.
Laura may have assumed her life would always be attached to a plow, if horses consider such things, but after years of service, she was sold at auction to a small horse farm in Layton, N.J. Ten years ago, she was donated to GAIT Therapeutic Riding Center in Milford, which provides a variety of therapies for people with disabilities, including movement, communication and mental disorders.
Sense of security
Laura needed a lot of training. Horses typically need two years before they are ready for therapy work.
"Nobody had been on her back. We desensitized her to that," said Martha Dubensky, GAIT founder and executive director.
With her wide back and muscular body, Laura was perfect for therapeutic riding.
"She gave riders a sense of security because she was hard to fall off of," Dubensky said.
Laura was the only horse in GAIT's stable that could handle larger riders, over 180 pounds. But it was her intuitive temperament that endeared the gentle giant to GAIT riders and visitors.
During equine facilitated psychotherapy classes, Delaware Valley School District students and a mental health professional are fenced in an area with a horse.
"Some students were fearful. She was huge," Dubensky said. "She would lower her head to those who were afraid of her and I don't think she even breathed. She seemed to know the ones who really needed her."
One student, Evan Passaro of Milford, started riding at GAIT 18 years ago when he was three years old. Passaro, now 21, has autism.
He grew to over 6 feet tall and rode on Laura until he entered the vocational training program that helps students transition from high school to work. Then, GAIT instructors decided to teach Passaro how to lead a horse. The task requires taking direction and communicating back to the instructor.
Laura was patient while Passaro learned to lead. Together, they became such a good team that Passaro learned how to lead Laura while she carried a disabled rider. With her help, he transitioned from rider to volunteer guider.
In tune with people
GAIT horses are usually around 15 years old by the time they enter the program, Dubensky said. Smaller horses have a life span of around 25 years. Draft horses, like Laura, tend to have a shorter, 20-year life span.
Laura, 26, worked on Feb. 23 and she was ridden for exercise the following Tuesday. The next day, she ate breakfast and lunch, then lay down in her stall.
"I was there when she first went down," Dubensky said.
She called volunteer Phyllis Dunay, who had been there when Laura came off the truck 10 years ago and had a special love for her.
The two sat with Laura for hours until finally Dubensky told Dunay to leave because she had a long drive home. She walked the volunteer to her car, then went back to the stall.
Laura looked up at Dubensky one last time with those kind brown eyes, then laid her head down and died.
"It was old age. She was not sick or in pain. She simply went to sleep," Dubensky said. "She waited until nobody was around her. She was so in tune to the people that needed her. That's why she was so special to this program. She just kept giving her heart away until she had nothing left to give."
View GAIT's memorial video for Laura here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XOm8Cerrh5g
Children's Activity Book To Support GAIT
A Day in the Life of a Therapeutic Horse An "I Know A Horse!" Activity book written and illustrated by Susan Klay Swalm from GAIT Therapeutic Riding Center
On sale at GAIT for $10.00