Visits From Horses Brighten Locked-Down Days For Those With Special Needs
PHILADELPHIA — Lauren Maqboul said her son was happy.
He also was confused.
But she called it a “good confusion” for her son Cameron, a 4-year-old with autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
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She said the surprise visit by two miniature horses from Pegasus Therapeutic Riding Academy made his day and sent a surge of much-needed excitement through her neighborhood in the Oxford Circle section of Northeast Philadelphia.
“It was the peak of our quarantine,” Maqboul said of the late April afternoon when Big Mac and Bleu — and their handlers — made an appearance on Pratt Street.
Since January, Cameron had been taking riding lessons every Thursday at Pegasus, which offers equine-assisted activities and programs for individuals with special needs. His interaction with the horses worked wonders.
“He is a totally different kid,” Maqboul said of her son’s behavior in the barn and on horseback. “He is calm. He is quiet. He follows instructions. He is serene, almost.”
Maqboul and Cameron haven’t been able to travel to the barn and riding area on Bustleton Avenue since the outbreak of the coronavirus forced the facility’s shutdown in mid-March.
But on a sunny spring Saturday, a crew from Pegasus paid them a visit, as assistant program director Emily Wilmot and a handful of staff members and volunteers brought two miniature horses to the family home.
“Cam was so excited,” Wilmot said. “It was so great to see. One of our new instructors, Kylie (Bonelli), she couldn’t stop crying.”
The visit was part of an initiative by Wilmot and program director Teresa Doherty to take Pegasus on the road, arranging for visits by miniature horses Big Mac and Bleu (the French spelling of the color of his eyes) to many of the facility’s regular clients and others looking to brighten their locked-down days.
For a $40 donation, Pegasus staff bring the miniature horses for a 30-minute visit. Social-distancing measures are maintained, so people can’t touch or ride the horses.
Wilmot said the organization has made around 30 visits since the lockdown and have plans for several more. She believes the outings have continued Pegasus’ mission to use the animals to promote wellness.
“It meant the world to see them,” said Jillian Hart, 17, of Northeast Philadelphia, who also received a visit on that Saturday. “I really miss them. Just to be able to volunteer and help someone makes me feel like I’m doing something right.”
Hart, a junior at St. Hubert’s High School, is a volunteer for Pegasus but has been unable to work at the facility since the pandemic’s outbreak.
“I text the barn manager every day, ‘Can I come back yet?'” Hart said. “I would actually live there if I could.”
Pegasus, which has been in operation since 1982, is a certified member of the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH), an international organization that oversees similar facilities and provides training protocols, shares best practices and supplies informational support.
Pegasus has 15 horses on site, and a staff of around 12 people, with close to 100 volunteers. They provide a variety of programs to about 100 regular riders, many of whom have physical, cognitive or psychological disabilities.
Pegasus also runs programs for children of first responders to help provide coping skills to “de-escalate stress” that sometimes is present in their homes because of the pressures of their parents’ professions.
Doherty said horses have the unique ability to comfort and connect with riders with special needs.
“Horses don’t know how to lie,” Doherty said. “These horses choose to be here. There are horses who don’t want to be therapy horses and we don’t force them.
“These horses have unconditional love and acceptance of their people. They make eye contact, unlike many other animals. They look at you and they make that connection: ‘You are my human.'”
Said Wilmot: “Horses are social animals. They look into your eyes. And their movement tends to sync with the body, calming the brain.”
Maqboul said the “steady, up-and-down movement” of the horse in motion provides a soothing effect on Cameron, who is nonverbal.
“It relaxes his body and seems to relax his brain,” Maqboul said.
Doherty said the visits from Big Mac and Bleu are the next best thing for riders who are missing their regular lessons.
“We’ve heard from parents that their kids would be crying out their horse’s name, grabbing riding helmets and trying to go out the door,” Doherty said. “We thought this would be a way to help our riders and also get out in the community, brighten some days, maybe help with fund-raising.”
The visit by Big Mac and Bleu was something special for Cameron, his mother said.
“He was so excited, so happy to see them,” Maqboul said. “The people at Pegasus, they have been so wonderful with him, so kind, so patient.
“It was a great day. Now we can’t wait until they open again and we can get back there.”
© 2020 The Philadelphia Inquirer
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