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Hackensack University Medical Center is connecting young patients and their families with the benefits of Pony Power Therapies, a nonprofit in Mahwah, NJ, providing therapeutic riding and other horse-assisted activities to special needs and at-risk populations. Tucked in the foothills of the Ramapo Mountains, pediatric patients ride horses, learn about organic farming and beekeeping and leave their mark in the form of handprints on fence boards dotting the farm.
The four-day summer sessions, one in July and one in August, are funded by a portion of the proceeds from the 2015 Susan Zabransky Hughes Memorial 5K Run/Walk. Combining her love of horses and her dedication to helping others, Susan Zabransky Hughes served as a volunteer and board member at Pony Power. She was active in initiating a therapeutic riding program for children treated at the Joseph M. Sanzari Children’s Hospital at HackensackUMC. The Run for Sue Committee allocated $25,000 of the proceeds to the Joseph M. Sanzari Children’s Hospital for children to participate in Pony Power.
“It is an honor and a privilege for my husband, Bill, and me to help provide scholarships for patients of the children’s hospital in memory of our daughter,” said Susan Zabransky. “The Run for Sue Committee is thrilled to be able to help young people to benefit from this extraordinary experience.”
“Gabriella loves Pony Power,” Elaina Lucena-Pereira said of her eight-year-old daughter. Diagnosed with leukemia in kindergarten, Gabriella’s treatment ended weeks before her Pony Power experience began. “It’s a great program,” Elaina said. “Siblings have a chance to share the experience and given what Gabby went through, it’s good to know that we can be together in this way as a family.”
Cindy Steele, M.D., associate director of the Institute for Pediatric Cancer and Blood Disorders at HackensackUMC, treated Gabriella. “Gabriella was treated for high-risk acute lymphoblastic leukemia with intensive chemotherapy for a year and then maintenance chemotherapy for another 18 months,” said Dr. Steele. “Chemotherapy can affect balance, coordination and energy levels. A program like Pony Power helps these patients regain their confidence and enjoyment of physical activity. Riding such a powerful, graceful animal empowers these children and reconnects them to their bodies in a unique way.”
“Susan Zabransky Hughes was an amazing woman, the whole family is. She loved horses and she loved to ride,” said Dana Spett, founder and executive director of Pony Power Therapies.
Dana, a lifelong equestrian who discovered therapeutic horseback riding while researching alternative therapies for one of her daughters with mild special needs, explained the inherent benefits. “Horses communicate with their peers entirely through body language, providing excellent metaphors for human interaction and relationships. When engaging with them, people learn how to stay present and focused – they experience life in the moment without the worry of usual stresses or concerns. It’s a forgiving process. There are no mistakes, there is only try again.”
Parents of patients have an opportunity to spend their own time in the ring engaging in equine exercises. For Elaina, the horses offered a physical manifestation of concepts she had plenty of time to consider during the quiet moments of Gabriella’s illness. She says Pony Power has reinforced personal reflections about creating safe spaces, setting attainable goals and overcoming obstacles.
Dana also pointed to the physiological benefits of therapeutic riding. “The movement of a horse not only simulates human gait, which helps riders strengthen and develop muscles, but it’s variable. They startle, they sneeze; they respond to touch – it’s a sensory-filled activity. Most importantly, horseback riding is something that all individuals – regardless of their ability – can do together. That’s why we’re thrilled to be able to include siblings as part of this program, offering a unique – and memorable – shared experience.”
Saddled up on a pony named Red Hot at the end of her session, Gabriella gives a little nudge with her legs. With a lead instructor and two side-walkers assisting, Gabby tells Red Hot, “Three, two, one, walk on!” And then, with a broad smile across her face and her hands high in the air, Gabby and Red Hot trot together, looking directly at the path before them and the bright sunshine ahead.
Photo: Dana Spett, founder and executive director of Pony Power; Gabriella Pereira, Pony Power participant; Jenn Caffrey, Pony Power instructor; Brianna Devine, Pony Power volunteer.