Leg Up Farm doesn’t feel like a medical facility. And that’s the whole point.
You won’t find any outdated waiting areas, antiseptic offices or endless hospital corridors here. Instead, there’s a barrier-free playground, colorful classrooms, a giant koi pond, rolling horse pastures and an on-site barn. In short, the cutting-edge pediatric therapy center is a dream-come-true for children with special needs.
“Kids don’t think they’re coming here for therapy,” explains Jennifer Hitz, chief development officer at the Mount Wolf, Pennsylvania, facility. “This is where they come to play.”
In 1997, Leg Up Farm founders Louie and Laurie Castriota dreamed of creating a therapeutic riding center. Ironically, not long after, they learned their daughter Brooke had mitochondrial disease, a genetic disorder that causes cognitive and physical impairments.
Faced with the challenge of taking care of their special needs child, the Castriotas embarked on a crash course in navigating the complexities of the health care system. Constantly frustrated by the logistical difficulties of attending multiple appointments for various therapies, Louie and Laurie expanded the scope of their dream. They wanted to create the ultimate pediatric therapy facility where all a child’s physical and mental needs were met under one roof in an affordable, accessible way.
For more than a decade, the Castriotas worked to turn their vision into reality, and in 2010, Leg Up Farm opened its doors. Since its opening, Leg Up Farm has served thousands of children with special needs through physical, occupational, speech and aquatic therapy, behavioral health services, equine-assisted psychotherapy, therapeutic horsemanship and a variety of educational and recreational opportunities.
Though Leg Up Farm employs impressive credentialed professionals, some of its best therapy providers are not on the payroll, but rather the hayroll. Fifteen horses of all sizes, ages and backgrounds—from ex-racehorses to pleasure mounts—comprise the therapy horse herd.
“What these horses are capable of doing is truly incredible,” says Hitz. “From any kind of developmental standpoint you can think of, therapy horses make a phenomenal difference. They’re truly changing lives.”
Riding horses doesn’t feel like therapy, it feels like fun.
But all the smiles and giggles coming from the barn belie important therapeutic work. Here, powerful movements strengthen weakened muscles, soft eyes invite emotional connections and rhythmic gaits bring order to chaotic minds. It’s because of the horses that so many children take their first steps or speak their first words at Leg Up Farm.
Many of the success stories can be attributed to a small bay Quarter Pony named Ella. Though small in stature, Ella has a big personality.
“She’s queen of the barn and a bit of a diva,” laughs Hitz. “She’s built like a reiner but has the heart and soul of a grand prix showjumper.”
Quirky and affable, Ella makes strong connections with those around her. Like many therapy horses, she’s often an emotional tuning fork, reflecting and responding to the varied needs of her riders.
“In traditional therapy, you don’t get that immediate experiential feedback,” explains Hitz. “But horses have the ability to mirror their riders and meet people where they’re at. If a client is sad, the horse might be gentler and move slower. If the kid is a little ornery, that horse might give them just the right amount of sass back.”
When one of her riders was oppositional and defiant, Ella (safely) behaved in kind. Confronted with the ramifications of his actions, the rider apologized to his therapeutic riding instructor for being so difficult.
“They have a remarkable ability to be exactly what the rider needs,” says Hitz.
When another rider needed some self-confidence and independence, Ella rose to the occasion.
Leg Up Farm’s equine director Jessica Warns shares the story of one of Ella’s regular riders with autism spectrum disorder: “He has limited verbal communication, needs prompts to do daily living tasks, participates in an adult day program and cannot live independently. However, his time with Ella is his time each week to truly be independent. Ella has helped him progress to a point where he can walk, trot and canter by himself. While he is unable to say that he is happy, while riding Ella, you have no doubt, as he is grinning from ear to ear. The joy this sense of freedom gives to him is not replicated in any other area of his life. Ella provides an opportunity he would not otherwise have.”
And Ella isn’t only changing lives; sometimes, she’s saving them. Hitz recounts a session when Ella, the most senior therapy horse at Leg Up Farm and typically very predictable, stopped for no obvious reason during the middle of the lesson. The instructors were puzzled because it was unlike Ella to be so stubborn. Minutes later, the child riding her—who at the time wasn’t exhibiting anything out of the ordinary—had a seizure and was able to be safely removed from her rock steady mount.
“It speaks so much to how in tune the horses are to their riders,” says Hitz.
Thanks to Ella and the other therapy horses at Leg Up Farm, children with special needs are able to surmount challenges with dirt on their boots, hay in their hair and smiles on their faces. Leg Up Farm doesn’t feel like a medical facility. And that’s the whole point.
Ella was the winner of Hope in the Saddle’s 2020 Therapy Horse of the Year contest!
Do you know a special horse who has made a big difference in someone’s life? Nominate a horse hero to win an incredible prize package from Nutrena and Tractor Supply Co. at bit.ly/2021TherapyHorseOfTheYear. Nominations open in late September.