As a riding instructor at Saddle Rock Ranch in Middle Island, Julie Dell'Aira hadn't planned to institute and manage a therapeutic horseback riding program for people with disabilities.

Nine years ago, when FREE — Family Residences and Essential Enterprises — acquired the 14-acre ranch, Dell'Aira was asked if she would be interested in giving therapeutic riding lessons.

"I said no, because I didn't have any background in doing that," said Dell'Aira, 52, of Wading River. But she eventually changed her mind.

Her first therapeutic student, a 6-year-old boy, "couldn't communicate verbally or in writing, but I taught him as I taught my other students; I encouraged him."

That experience motivated Dell'Aira to continue, with one major change.

"I told my boss I didn't want to teach regular students anymore, only therapeutic students," she said.

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Dell'Aira, who is married with three children, attended workshops and took teaching tests to be certified as an instructor by the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International.

"It's a very demanding job," she said. "We have a lot of riders coming with cerebral palsy, riders visually impaired and riders who are totally blind. I've had riders who are paraplegic."

She is paid to teach, but Dell'Aira also volunteers for FREE.

"I don't just teach the lessons, but coordinate the entire therapeutic riding program at the ranch, mentor instructors, recruit and train volunteers," she said."I really do all of the administrative end. I do our advertising, because that was the industry I was in."She has a fan in Christopher Long, FREE's chief operating officer.

"Julie encompasses all of the characteristics sought in a volunteer," he said. "She has a commitment not only to the ranch but to helping disadvantaged populations."

Dell'Aira has noticed that, too.

"I've become quite passionate about the things that FREE does," she said. "You just try to pry me out of here; you'll need a very big crowbar."