Lisa Gatti loves horses, and she loves teaching. In 1995, the former special-education teacher combined those two loves into a business, Pal-O-Mine Equestrian Inc., an Islandia nonprofit that uses horses to help the disabled learn life skills.
The business began in Old Brookville in a leased barn with one leased horse and one student; it now sprawls on its own 8-acre location in Islandia, with 19 horses and 400 clients. The clients confront a number of challenges, said Gatti, 46. Some have cerebral palsy or Down syndrome, or are Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans battling post-traumatic stress disorder, or are at-risk youth in need of socialization skills.
They range from 18 months to 78 years old and all work with horses to learn better coping skills, whether it be a calm ride in Pal-O-Mine's outdoor arenas or interacting with the horses to build better hand-eye coordination or self-esteem.
Gatti's earliest challenge was finding a new place for her equine-therapy business after community resistance sprang up. The Islandia location, which she bought from CA Technologies in 2007, is the nonprofit's seventh location.
"When people think of a handicapped program," said Gatti, "they think of cute little kids and you have a horse or a pony and you walk around. That really never was my vision. My vision was to grow it as big as it could possibly get, with so many people in need of this type of therapy."
I gravitated to them because they were calm. It was the instant gratification that if you took care of me then you could ride me. What are your objectives for clients?
Whatever that person needs is what we try to deliver. So it looks very different from person to person. [For at-risk youth] you don't want to put them back in the environment that they have already been unsuccessful in. So here you put them in the arena or you put them in a classroom that looks very very different. There are no tables in my classroom. There's nothing that would entice them to say, "Oh, my gosh, I have to do schoolwork." We have three miniature horses and four miniature Sicilian donkeys, all trained to walk into the classroom. So in inclement weather the horses do work right in the classroom with the kids. And it becomes engaging. So they try to calm the horse and by extension learn new behavior.
What is the greatest joy of your business?
It's progress in ways that I feel blessed to be a part of. Kids walk for the first time here. They smile for the first time. They speak for the first time. Kids that have never ever been told that they are beautiful, they come in here and they just light up. And it's the miracle of the horse. The horse puts these kids on a level playing field and often for the very first time in their life, and I get to be a part of that.
What's your biggest challenge?
Managing the growth with trying to get the funding that we need. I don't want to be state funded. I don't want to be county funded. If budgets are cut, I don't have to worry about telling any of our clients, "Guess what, you don't have a service here." But at the same time without any state or county funding, where do you go? There is only just so much [corporate] money out there.
NAME: Lisa Gatti, founder and executive director of Pal-O-Mine Equestrian Inc. in Islandia.
WHAT IT DOES: Uses horses to help the disabled learn life skills.
ANNUAL BUDGET: $1.3 million.