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Mahwah Ponies Hold Healing Power For Ill Children

Laura Maresciallo, classroom curriculum coordinator at Pony Power Therapies, introduces a horse to a new friend. Photo Credit: Lorraine Ash
Kendall brushing a horse. Photo Credit: Lorraine Ash
A moment of communion for Jenn Ripston, instructor at Pony Power Therapies, with a horse. Photo Credit: Lorraine Ash
Parents, who endure their own struggles when caring for sick children, enjoy their own programming at Pony Power Therapies in Mahwah. Photo Credit: Lorraine Ash
A group shot of the second summer session for Hackensack University Medical Center pediatric patients at Pony Power Therapies in Mahwah. They're holding a fence rail on which they've signed their names, leaving a piece of themselves at the farm. Photo Credit: Lorraine Ash

MAHWAH, N.J. — In the main barn at Pony Power Therapies in Mahwah on Thursday a little girl stood aside a caramel-colored horse, eying him cautiously.

“Stop moving,” Giuliana said to the horse. “I’m trying to brush you.”

The horse turned his head and looked serenely at her. She peacefully resumed.

The 16-year-old nonprofit, which provides therapeutic riding and other horse-assisted activities for at-risk people, hosted pediatric cancer patients from Hackensack University Medical Center as well as their parents and siblings.

The four-day camp, which ended Thursday, was the second of two summer camps offered for 20 children at the site this summer. The other took place in July.

“We use the horse and the farm as treatment strategies,” said Dana Spett, an Old Tappan native and founder and executive director of Pony Power Therapies.

At Pony Power, the staff looks at everything through the lens of a horse – its care, its body language, its behaviors, and daily lifestyle. All of that, she explained, mirrors human behavior.

When a person is sitting properly on the back of a walking horse, Spett said, the person’s body moves as fluidly and naturally as if he were walking on the ground.

The movement puts a person with a life-limiting illness in sync with natural rhythms.

“Their body is moving as if everything is working well,” said Spett, who is an equestrian and a social worker. “They’re getting out of their heads. They are present in the moment, which a horse demands. That alone has a wonderful healing quality.”

The youngest client at Pony Power is 2, the oldest, 88.

The program includes patients as well as their siblings, caregivers, parents, and clinicians.

On Thursday, parents of the children had their own activities with the help and instruction of Miriam Berman, horse-assisted life skills associate/instructor at Pony Power. They set up an indoor course in three parts representing the past, present, and future.

The past was presented in terms of what the parents want to leave behind, the present in terms of self-care, and the future in terms of what they and their children had gained along the illness journey.

It all went well.

“The horses were happy and comfortable,” Berman said, “and that’s a very good sign.”

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