When Lisa Gatti, founder and executive director of Pal-O-Mine Equestrian, is faced with a difficult student -- one who is violent or kicks and screams -- she pairs the student with Cajun, an Appaloosa horse she rescued from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
The sweet-natured horse takes the rider’s blows and sudden movements in stride, she said. With a quiet strength about them and a presence that commands respect, horses have a calming effect on her students -- children and adults with disabilities -- Gatti said.
“We use our horses to facilitate emotional growth, learning, healing,” she said, adding that the therapy also fosters independence, improves balance and motor skills.
For the past 16 years, Gatti has run the therapeutic horseback riding program for individuals with physical, social and emotional disabilities on an 8-acre ranch in Islandia. The program has 320 students, ranging in age from 2 to 68, and 19 therapy horses.
But it’s soon to have 20 horses, thanks to the initiative of 11-year-old Elaina Massimo, of Setauket, who has seen firsthand the benefits of the program.
Massimo, a sixth-grader at the Nassakeag Elementary School in Setauket, began a schoolwide fundraiser for Pal-O-Mine after seeing how successful the program had been for her brothers, Christopher and Steven, who are autistic and have been riding at Pal-O-Mine for two years. The three siblings are triplets.
“It’s helped my family because it’s helped my brothers,” she said. “It’s easier to take them places, they know how to act in front of people.”
Massimo, under the guidance of teacher Jon Stecker and with the help of her classmates, sold rubber bracelets with the saying "Nassakeag Cares" and raised $2,550 for Pal-O-Mine, which Gatti said will pay for a new horse.
On Tuesday, Massimo and her classmates presented a check to Pal-O-Mine and in return got a tour of the ranch and participated in a lesson like those that Pal-O-Mine students take.
Riding on toy horses, the students were put into groups of three and simulated what it would be like to lose one of their senses, either hearing, sight or the ability to speak. They had to rely on other senses, and one another, to get around an arena.
Gatti said Pal-O-Mine’s students ride live horses but go through similar exercises to learn to focus and work around their disabilities.
Charles Massimo, Elaina’s father, said initially his daughter wanted to raise $400, the price of a bale of hay. The family didn’t know the money raised would purchase a new horse until the check presentation on Tuesday.
He said the ranch has been a huge asset to his family, providing a place where his sons can enjoy themselves and develop.
“Just to be able to get them to come here and sit on a horse for a half hour was a challenge at the beginning,” he said. “Now, they walk to the barn, walk to their horse, know who their horse is, put their helmets on -- these are monumental tasks for autistic children.”
Gatti said the new horse will arrive at Pal-O-Mine in May. She has asked the students to come up with the horse’s name as a token of her appreciation.
She said that the relationship between these students and the ranch was important not just because of the students’ philanthropy, but because the experience opened their eyes to people with disabilities.
“There needs to be a level of acceptance for children and adults with disabilities,” she said. “I think this does that.”
Students from Nassakeag Elementary School simulate learning to ride a horse without their sense of sight at Pal-O-Mine Equestrian. (April 26, 2011)