Using Horses For 'Small Wonders'

DO NOT USE AFTER AUG 31 2009 -- Exterior view of the tent compound in the backyard of Phillip and Nancy Garrido's house, in Antioch, Calif., where Jaycee Lee Dugard was held for 18 years.
Nick Stern
Lisa Gatti is convinced that horses can work miracles.

"I think just being around horses is therapeutic. It teaches self-esteem; it teaches discipline," Gatti says.

She runs a non-profit company in Huntington, L.I., called Pal-O-Mine. For her clients attempting to ride a horse is a special act of courage. So in the ongoing series called "America Heroes," The Early Show is giving credit where credit is due.

"Mary Ellen King has congenital Rubella. She came to us very low in tone, she has very poor posture. Riding a horse stimulates many parts of the human body - legs, the spinal cord, the lower back, the whole pelvic region. We see improvement in posture and balance and fine and gross motor control," Gatti explains.

Gatti is a former special education teacher who grew up loving horses. Then one day she read a novel about a woman who used horseback riding to help recover from a catastrophic injury.

"The idea from Pal-O-Mine specifically came from a Danielle Steele novel titled 'Palomino.' I thought that horses would be absolutely wonderful creatures to rehabilitate the special needs population. It was perfect, so I wanted to try it myself," she says.

The theory is that a horse's motion has a therapeutic effect on many injuries.

"The horse's movement mimics the human gait. Students who are lacking trunk control, they're able to get the movement and enhance their muscles through the horse's movement," Gatti says.

And she's found that riding can help people with a wide variety of disabilities.

"We have kids with autism, kids with muscular dystrophy, students who have been in car accidents. We have an adult population of people with multiple sclerosis, spina bifida attention disorder. So we really run the gamut," Gatti says.

"I think horses tend to work for everybody. But I think the underlying reason is because all the students have a sense of empowerment. For some who are blind the horses are their eyes for them," she continues.

Jen Clayden lost her sight four years ago. Today, she's learning to navigate around the ring by listening for letters called out by Pal-O-Mine volunteers.

"They're called living letters and each letter is represented by a human voice. And that's how she is able to hear herself around the arena," Gatti explains.

Students here receive much more than riding lessons. Pal-O-Mine is therapy on horseback.

"They may have the student sitting sideways, sitting backwards. They do such things as improving the truck control where it's just very subtle manipulation in the pelvic region," Gatti says.

Victoria Mandeli suffers from a rare disease, which affects her ability to speak. Her mother believes that the horses have helped her daughter learn to talk.

"My daughter was three and a half years-old, she was not verbal at all. And within four sessions my daughter began talking; her first words were walk, horse, Redford and Atticus, which are the names of two of the horses here. I feel that Victoria's progress has been completely from the horses," says Mandeli.

Mary Ellen King's mother says that her daughter has benefited as well.

"Before she used to feel that she could do nothing. You know what can I do. I can't play ball, I can't run, I can't do this. But when she could get on that horse and feel the horse, be able to control the horse. That was the greatest thing. I think it's the best thing that ever happened to her," says Eileen King.

Pal-O-Mine has helped nearly 800 disabled clients since Gatti founded the company in 1995. But for her, the work is more than just a job.

"I certainly have put my heart and soul into this program. And if that means working seven days a week for the last 8 years and taking home no salary, then that's OK. The best thing about it is that we do see small miracles every day on a daily basis, seven days a week," she says.

Gatti has nearly 150 volunteers that help her run Pal-O-Mine. If you would like to learn more about volunteer opportunities, please call Sheila at 631-427-6105.