Overcoming obstacles with Pegasus Riding Academy

This is the first in a two-part series that examines the Pegasus Riding Academy and the individuals who make it work.

It’s been awhile since 27-year-old Kristy Spressark was here.

She remembers the various skills she obtained when she started as a child. Although, the realization has set in that once seemingly easy tasks now require more effort than she recalls.

Spressark has a cavernoma, a cluster of abnormal blood vessels mainly found in the brain and spinal chord that causes her to have weakness in her limbs and balance problems. Spressark, who walks with a cane, participates in a unique form of therapy to help her condition: horse riding.

“I think it’s more helpful to me now than when I was 7,” Spressark says, “because back then, I could do a lot more on the horse. The tasks are more difficult for me, so I believe I am gaining a lot more benefits.”

Spressark is not the only one at Pegasus Riding Academy who is gaining huge strides and benefits from riding therapy. Pegasus reaches out to those with not only physical, but developmental and emotional disabilities as well. The academy’s new logo captures the spirit of the program more accurately, as it is no longer a rider in a wheelchair, but a horse with wings.

A volunteer leads a horse to the outside riding area.
(A volunteer leads a horse to the outside riding area.)

When the academy first started in 1982, it only served 15 mildly disabled children a week. The program was greatly limited by the weather before the indoor riding area and horse barn were implemented in 1993. Today, the program serves approximately 100 adult and child participants from Philadelphia and the surrounding counties year round.

Since Pegasus is the only therapeutic riding program located within Philadelphia at 8297 Bustleton Ave. in Bell’s Corner, it is able to serve the inner city population on many levels. The riders represent more than 100 different disabilities and more than 40 area health agencies, rehabilitation centers, hospitals and schools for children with disabilities send referrals daily.

Mary Anne Porrecn, mother of Tom, who has a metabolic disorder syndrome, says she grabbed the opportunity when one of the recreation therapists at Tom’s school called and offered Tom a slot of time at the academy that was no longer being filled by another student.

“He called me as soon as Tom got off the horse,” says Porrecn, “and said, ‘You won’t believe the ride he had!’  Tom has been there ever since and he really enjoys it.”

Barbra Wertheimer, executive director at the academy, says, “Doctors and therapists, in increasing numbers, have found riding therapy to be not only physically therapeutic, but also extremely effective in building self-esteem and self-confidence for those who have a variety of disabilities, regardless of age.”

The movement of the horse proves to be extremely effective in establishing or re-establishing balance, coordination and perception, when compared to static therapy treatments. People and horses have the same walking patterns, so riding therapy helps physically challenged children discover the rhythm needed to initiate their own independent steps. Riding therapy can also improve a person’s quality of walking.

“I think it strengthens my legs so I can walk better,” Spressark says. “It really centers the core of my walking.”

Spressark’s eyes shined as she described her ride with her favorite horse, Petey.

“It was good, but they really work me over,” Spressark says laughing. “It was difficult for me, but that’s good for me. Petey and I are always together and that’s why he’s my favorite.”

It has been reported that more and more children are being diagnosed with Autism every day. The medical community pinpoints equine-assisted activities and therapies as a progressive treatment for Autism because both horses and children with Autism interpret the world pictorially.

Ruth Osborn, a committed volunteer at the academy, has seen the special connection between horses and children with Autism.

“I’ve seen kids who were just totally out of it, who are totally different now,” Osborn says. “They’re not over their Autism by any means, but they’re certainly much more communicative, better able to deal. It’s just amazing. It’s the bond with the horses and the people, it’s just amazing.”

Michelle Young, the mother of 2-year-old Danny, who has Autism, started her son in the summer program after she discovered it on the way home from a group class Danny goes to with other children who have Autism.

“For us, it made our house a lot more calmer because it calmed Danny down a lot,” Young says. “He used to get very very frustrated over things and that seemed to quickly change.  For example, he used to line up his toys and if he couldn’t get them right, he’d get really upset.  So that, at this point, completely changed.  He doesn’t scream now if he knocks something over or anything like that.”

Executive Director Barbara Wertheimer works in her office at Pegasus Riding Academy.
(Executive Director Barbara Wertheimer works in her office at Pegasus Riding Academy.)

Young says they’re not going anywhere when it comes to Pegasus because that is the only place Danny talks.  She hopes this program will continue to help Danny focus because she says that’s improving but he still gets distracted very easily.

Riding therapy has also been found to be effective with mentally and emotionally challenged individuals by improving their socialization, personal development and self-esteem.  These improvements occur because of the clients’ relationships with the horses and the built trust with the instructors.

“He’s paying attention more, much better than he had been,” says Porrecn, “and he seems to concentrate. He can calm himself down a little bit better because we have had some behavior issues that go on because of the disorder.  And he’s happy; he smiles.  He’s taking directions better than he had been.”

The academy gives its riders one more opportunity to better themselves through allowing competition in events.  Riders gain self-discipline and a sense of accomplishment.  Indeed, riders have something to work toward.

“When I was 7, I was in the Devon Horse Show and for a couple of years after that,” Spressark recalls. “I won second place in one show and sixth place in another show. It was really cool. You get to meet a lot of people.”

Osborn acknowledges the importance of donations and getting more people to volunteer because, without those elements, families might have to miss out on the incredible moments that happen at Pegasus.

“It’s a marvelous program.  I think more people need to know about it, both people who could benefit from riding and people who would benefit from volunteering here.”

The people involved with Pegasus Riding Academy say amazing things are happening right in the city of Philadelphia and it’s about time people know about it.

Nicole Dalrymple is a reporter for Philadelphia Neighborhoods, the publication of Temple University’s Multimedia Urban Reporting Lab.

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