On a recent sunny morning that masqueraded as spring, Michael Sclafani, 28, perched on a horse named Archie at HorseAbility's facility in Melville. Sclafani has autism and cannot speak, but he nevertheless communicated his pleasure with a wide smile as several volunteers and staff members slowly walked Archie around the ring.
HorseAbility, which provides horse therapy to children and adults with special needs, will soon get a boost of its own with an impending move to an equestrian facility on the campus of SUNY Old Westbury.
"It's a huge move -- it's exciting," said Katie McGowan, founder and executive director of HorseAbility.
The group begins operations at the college on April 1, where it will have 20 acres and space to house 43 horses -- expanding from its current two-acre space on the grounds of the Thomas School of Horsemanship.
"We've always been an educational facility with an education program, so this was a great match to be on the campus of a college," McGowan said.
With the move, McGowan said she hopes to expand her organization's programming as well, adding a day program for teens aging out of high school, among others.
Equestrian F. Ambrose Clark built an equestrian center on his Old Westbury estate in 1912, using it to breed champion thoroughbreds, said Calvin Butts, president of SUNY Old Westbury. Clark's estate was sold to the state and became the grounds for the college in 1971, but the equestrian center was used infrequently, such as for yearly polo matches by the Old Westbury College Foundation.
Butts said the college had entertained several proposals from different groups over the years for the property, but chose HorseAbility because of its educational focus.
"We like the idea that we're working with a group that is really serving an important need in our community," he said. "That's consistent with our mission."
In addition, the move allows HorseAbility to benefit from volunteers from the college -- Old Westbury students studying childhood development as well as freshmen needing to fulfill community-service duties, McGowan said.
As part of the lease agreement, McGowan's group will renovate the center's 27,000-square-foot barn, as well as add handicapped access points, parking and new riding rings.
She said the new location would be a longer drive, but she's going to try to keep him going to classes.
"It makes him feel good about himself," she said as her son balanced on the horse. "This is incredible that he's doing this."
ROOM TO GROW
- HorseAbility, which began in 1993, operates with 13 horses at its current Melville location.