Luis Rodriguez, 5, who has autism, cannot speak and walks awkwardly on his toes. But on a recent spring afternoon he sat perfectly astride a blond pony in a barn in Forest Hills, Queens, and showed everyone how he felt, erupting into applause at his accomplishment.
The small therapeutic riding company where Luis is a student will soon move into its own place for the first time, after winning a contract with New York City to take over a financially troubled riding stable in Howard Beach, Queens. The move will allow the company, Gallop NYC, to serve 800 children on its waiting list and teach 2,000 students a year, compared with the 700 currently enrolled.
Gallop NYC began 11 years ago as a weekly program teaching riding skills to children with physical and intellectual disabilities using a handful of ponies and horses. It eked out space in the riding rings at one of the city’s few remaining public riding stables, Kensington Stables in Prospect Park, Brooklyn. Today Gallop NYC has expanded into stables in several neighborhoods, including Mill Basin in Brooklyn and Pelham Bay in the Bronx.
Teaching children with disabilities to ride is a group effort, with methodology set out by the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International. As Luis rode in Forest Hills, bursting into giggles at points, volunteers stood on each side, bracing his legs against the horse’s flanks. Another volunteer led the palomino, while a fourth called out instructions. When it was time to trot, the whole team ran beside the horse, while Luis bounced along, beaming.
"Every semester we have a rider classified as nonverbal who surprises us by saying, ‘Walk on!’ or ‘Trot on!’” said James Wilson, Gallop NYC’s director of operations and a former rodeo rider from Texas, referring to commands to make a horse go.
Outside the riding ring at Lynne’s Riding Center, the stable in Forest Hills where Gallop has been sharing space, Kathy Wang hugged her son, David Yang, 5, after he got off his horse. David, who has autism and has difficulty focusing, stays grounded when he is on horseback, she said. He also just loves it.
“On the weekend, he takes his bicycle and says, ‘Walk on,’ and ‘Trot on,’” Ms. Wang said with a laugh.
The need to use multiple people to work with riders with disabilities can make riding rings feel cramped. As Gallop NYC grew — it now has four full-time staff members and 400 volunteers — it underscored the need for its own home, said Alicia Kershaw, the organization’s executive director. After the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation requested proposals for Cedar Lane stables in Howard Beach, Gallop NYC won the contract in December.
Next to a shopping mall, Cedar Lane stables sit on a scraggly triangle of land dotted with shipping containers. In 2013, six horses died in rapid succession there, prompting the city to close the stables temporarily over concerns for the animals’ welfare.
The stables have been run since 1994 by the Federation of Black Cowboys, a group that promotes the history of blacks in the American West through school field trips. Many pioneering cowboys were escaped slaves, according to the group, an often overlooked past.
The stable was run on what is known as a “rough board” system — members of the federation who owned horses were responsible for their daily upkeep. The method kept costs low since there were no stablehands to pay. Of the six horses that died, three died of natural causes and one was killed in an accident. The other two belonged to an absentee owner, members of the federation said at the time, and may have starved to death.
Since Gallop NYC was awarded the contract for Cedar Lane, the parks department has promoted conversations between the groups in an effort to allow the federation to stay at the stables. Gallop has agreed to rent stalls to the federation, but the cost will increase to $650 per month from $175 a month.
Kesha Morse, president of the federation, said that might be out of reach for many members, who now number about 20. “I hope we have a future,” Ms. Morse said.
Gallop NYC, a nonprofit, has agreed to spend $180,000 to repair the dilapidated stable, including towing rusted machinery and paving the aisle between the horse stalls, which is now a path covered in manure. An architect who specializes in equestrian facilities, John Blackburn, has donated his services for a future renovation.
Sam Biederman, a spokesman for the parks department, said, “In addition to demonstrating the long-term financial solvency that is crucial to the maintenance of an equestrian operation, Gallop NYC proposed investments in the licensed premises as well as in the community, through job training and riding programs.”
At a recent Gallop NYC fund-raiser in Queens, Sol Reischer spoke about his daughter Lauren, who has cerebral palsy and as a toddler was unable to part her legs. The first time she did was when she got on a horse as a student in a Gallop program, he said. Today, she is a teenager, cantering around the ring.
“You have people whose lives are pretty circumscribed — a lot of our riders have one-on-one aides and very little freedom,” Ms. Kershaw said. “They get on the horse and they can tell the horse where to go, and where they can’t go. It’s really a feeling of power. It gives them a sense of possibility they don’t often feel.”