Pal-O-Mine Connects Challenged Adults and Kids with the Healing Power of Horses
by Christine Lynn Harvey

Lisa Gatti stands in front of a room of 20 potential volunteers on an early Saturday afternoon. People in the room have gathered to learn more about her organization, Pal-O-Mine and to discover whether they have what it takes to work with challenged adults and children on horses. A few are experienced equestrians but most are there because Gatti and her volunteers set up a gift wrapping table at some bookstores over the holidays as a way to educate people about her organization. A woman, who used to ride and who just gave away all her riding equipment laughs at the serendipitous irony and says she is really looking forward to volunteering. They come from all walks of life---a woman who is a managed health care provider administrator and volunteer EMT, a college student studying to be a physical therapist with ADHD who says she doesn’t see herself as disabled, a middle-aged father who has turned out with his teenaged daughter and son. People keep streaming through the door till it becomes standing room only. Some are here by word of mouth from other volunteers who have given their time and been transformed by the experience. When Gatti was a freshman at a college in Virginia, she decided she wanted a career in special education. She was already an accomplished equestrian, competing in events all her life. She had read Palomino, a book by Danielle Steele about a woman who creates a new life for herself by opening up a therapeutic ranch when she becomes paralyzed after falling from a horse. Gatti was immediately inspired by the story and wanted to start an organization that used horses to help people. When she told her father, he asked her where she was going to get the money. When Gatti couldn’t answer, he told her she should marry a rich man. “I’m still looking,” she says as the room breaks out in laughter. Raising money was going to be an issue and it still is, but that didn’t stop Gatti from starting Pal-O-Mine in 1995. Her father encouraged her to move back to Long Island where she enrolled at St. Joseph’s College in Patchogue which Gatti says has an excellent special education program and equestrian team.

St. Joseph’s also offered Gatti a dual degree in elementary education special education. Gatti looks for all kinds of volunteers, not just ones interested in working with horses. There’s clerical, administration, publicity and of course fundraising positions that need to be filled. Although she has no budget to pay anyone, Gatti does a thorough background check of all her volunteers. Shelia, a mid 30’s-something woman who has been with Gatti for a number of years says people hang up on her when she tries to verify background info on potential volunteers. “They think I’m calling for donations and before I get two words out, they hang up on me.” If you think checking volunteers’ background info is tough, you can only imagine what fundraising must be like in this depressed economy. The reason why hippotherapy is so healing is that a horse’s gait mimics the human gait which is vital to stimulating the brains of children and adults who are disabled, especially the wheelchair-bound. Sitting in the saddle sends nerve impulses to the brain that fool the body into thinking it is walking. Studies have shown that this stimulation helps rehabilitate the challenged individuals in a number of ways. Coordination, balance, improvements in fine and gross motor skills, attention span and communication skills are just some of the things that are markedly improved by hippotherapy.
Therapeutic horseback riding brings remarkable benefits to those with disabilities by stretching both mind and muscles. For someone who can't walk, see and/or communicate riding a horse allows them to experience a new sense of freedom. “Only on a horse can they feel that kind of independence and freedom,” says Gatti. “It also teaches self-esteem and self-discipline.” A video is presented a segment shows some of the riders never having been on a horse before. All can’t mount without some assistance. Some of their bodies are stiff and inflexible. There is some fear, anxiety and tremendous insecurity expressed in their face and body language, but after riding a few times, they begin sitting up straight in the saddle, looking ahead and smiling ecstatically, things Gatti says they have never done before.The video stirs deep emotional responses in some in the room and tissues are needed. The realization that a challenged adult or child can be so profoundly transformed by simply riding a horse is too powerful to be ignored. Just watching the video is a healing experience.
All sorts of conditions are helped by Pal-O-Mine’s therapeutic program: autistic, traumatic brain injured, cerebral palsy, Down Syndrome, epilepsy, learning disabled, hearing and visually impaired and multiple sclerosis. It is amazing to watch riders who do not have full use of their body to ride with confidence and poise atop their 4-legged partners. One young autistic woman who never spoke before riding a horse, started communicating after a riding a couple of times. Even the elderly benefit from hippotherapy. Pal-O-Mine transports their horses to a local nursing home once a week where residents ride horses around the facility’s parking lot for an hour, acting much like teenagers. Many of the challenged riders gone on to compete in events. One young man, Keith Newerla, has qualified for the 2004 Paralympics.
Gatti not only screens her volunteers, she screens her horses as well. Most of them are top bred, usually pedigree horses donated by competitive equestrians, trainers and breeders. “Not all horses are good with challenged riders,” says Gatti. “I watch them and see how they do. I look for non judgmental horses who are patient. Not all horses are like that. It takes a special horse. If they were abused and ill-treated in the past, they are not going to trust being around people.” Gatti also encourages her volunteer to come to her if they don’t feel comfortable with a horse, rider or situation. “It’s OK, I want to know these things,” she says. The riding aspect of Pal-O-Mine operates out of Willow Tree Farm Equestrian Center in Caumsett State Park in Huntington. It’s the same setting as the one used in the movie “Arthur.” The center provides an unequaled setting for equestrian events. Pal-O-Mine has constructed a special use mounting ramp there and has also modified the facility in other ways to accommodate challenged riders. But barn, horses and equipment are not simply donated. Gatti is constantly writing grants and asking for corporate sponsorship. Small businesses and individuals who can’t make a big donations are encouraged to participate in Pal-O-Mine’s adopt-a-horse program. For $25, you can buy a horse treats (like carrots and mints) or you can donate $8,000 and fully sponsor a horse, taking care of its boarding, food and medical expenses for a year. With the latter, a donor gets a certificate and photo of their adoptive horse. It takes special people (as well as horses) to be involved with Lisa Gatti and her cause, because Gatti herself and Pal-O-Mine is so special!

For more info, please visit the website at www.Pal-O-Mine.org or call (631) 423-7183 or email info@pal-o-mine.org. Your individual donations, corporate sponsorship and volunteer input is needed and greatly appreciated. Photos courtesy of Pal-O-Mine