Hoofin’ it in NYC

Service horses and dogs unleash new pawsibilities for disabled New Yorkers.

by Sarah Wyman and Gabby Landsverk

Life in New York City is fast-paced and overwhelming. For New Yorkers living with mental, physical and cognitive disabilities, tasks that are challenging under normal circumstances — navigating crowded subway stations or simply crossing the street — become formidable obstacles.

Here’s an inside look at how service animals in NYC are lending a helping paw (or hoof) so residents with disabilities can lead more mobile, independent lives.

Miller, an 11-month-old labrador-golden mix, is training to become a service dog. When he completes his training next year, he will be ready to assist a person who uses a wheelchair. (Photo by Sarah Wyman)

At first glance, Miller looks like an ordinary puppy. He’s a sprightly labrador-golden retriever mix with floppy ears, expressive eyes and paws he’s still growing into. But by the time he turns one-year-old next month, Miller will have accumulated a more impressive resume than most puppies his age

Miller is training to become a service dog. Under the instruction of his puppy raiser, Saxon Eastman, he is learning 44 commands which will prepare him to help his eventual partner — likely a wheelchair-user — to live a more independent life.

“He’ll learn how to take someone’s socks off, he will learn how to put his two front paws up onto a counter in order to retrieve items off of a counter and he’ll be able to load and unload a front-facing washer and dryer,” said Eastman.

“They work together as a team in order to do things that they maybe wouldn’t be able to do on their own otherwise.”

Guide and service dogs can be trained to help individuals with a wide range of disabilities, including auditory, visual and cognitive impairments. For many of these people, the assistance of a trained service dog can prove transformative.

Eastman, who now raises puppies for a nonprofit called Canine Companions for Independence, previously trained seeing eye dogs for Guiding Eyes for the Blind.

“I got to watch some of the students walk outside at night on their own for the first time in years or for the first time in their lives, and it was so incredible to get to witness that.”
—Saxon Eastman

Guide dogs help their owners to get around safely by cuing them to changes in elevation — like the edge of a curb — and navigating between obstacles like trash cans and poles. At intersections, they respond to the command “forward” to cross with their owners. However, “if they see a car coming or they see a manhole without a cover or some type of obstacle, they will not follow that command, and that’s how they keep their person safe while they’re trying to cross the street,” said Eastman.

Saxon Eastman practices the “heel” command with Miller. (Photo by Sarah Wyman)

Guide and service dogs are also trained to accompany their owners as they use public transportation. “They go all over the place, and it’s definitely super important that no matter what type of transportation they’re on, they’re comfortable, they know how to do their job, and they’e able to be with their person and make sure everything goes smoothly and safely,” said Eastman, who practices riding the subway and Metro North with Miller.

“I teach him how to go under the seat and lay there until our stop. He’s a pro.” —Saxon Eastman

Dogs like Miller can do little to improve the accessibility issues many disabled people face when attempting to use public transportation in New York City. However, they provide their owners with an added sense of security and give them the freedom to explore the city on their own terms. That’s a pretty good start.

Avery, a Grey Welsh pony, is one of several therapy horses that help teach physical and social skills to people with disabilities. (Photo by Gabby Landsverk)

On the edge of the city, in the middle of the Bronx, the sound of traffic fades, replaced by chirping birds, buzzing insects and snorting ponies. For some, it’s a chance to escape the restrictions of stairs and subways and find a more free-flowing kind of transporation: horseback riding.

“If you’re here, you can hardly believe that you’re in the city, right?” said Pam Russo, the coordinator of Flying Manes Therapeutic Riding.

Russo leads the way down a hoof-beaten dirt path at Riverdale Stables in the Bronx. It’s true: in the middle of Van Cortlandt Park, it’s possible to get away from the hustle of the city.

“Therapeutic riding is like the whole package.”
—Pam Russo

Flying Manes is an equestrian assistance program that offers horsemanship classes for people with cognitive, physical and emotional disabilities.

“You’re bonding to your animal as you’re riding, and then you’re bonding to a whole team of people, so it’s a social experience, it’s a physical experience, it’s cognitive … it’s like the whole package, to me,” she said.

Flying Manes welcomes riders aged four and up with a variety of disabilities, including but not limited to; cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, brain injury, visual or hearing impairment, Down Syndrome, autism and other learning and behavioral disabilities.

Five-year-old Elan Dwyer works with his pony Avery on a horsemanship course, part of Flying Manes summer camp for therapeutic riding. (Photo by Gabby Landsverk)

It takes a horse of a different caliber to provide the patient, calm presence therapy riding requires, what Russo calls “bomb proof.”

Stefanie Dwyer, executive director of Flying Manes, said the program’s ponies and horses are specially chosen, brought to Riverdale Stables from a variety of backgrounds.

“They have to be [patient] and not only that, they have to be sound, meaning they are healthy and able. We want the horses to have energy, not too much, to be aware but not all over the place, so it’s a balancing act. We’ve been extremely lucky with the horses we’ve been able to use here,” Dwyer said.

Avery, a mild-mannered, intelligent Grey Welsh standing at 13.1 hands (just under four and a half feet) tall, is a retired show pony much loved at Flying Manes.

Avery had a lot to say about her second career as a therapy horse.

Avery has one of the longest tenures at Flying Manes — she’s helped dozens of young riders improve their physical skills over the years.

“She’s been here at Riverdale for a long time,” Dwyer said. “She’s definitely on the more experienced side, but she is still very much in the game.”

Through an ongoing relationship with Avery, Dwyer’s son, five-year old Elan, has learned to focus, to be more gentle with the reins and to be more confident in his commands. The pair developed a strong bond of trust running figure-eights and practicing stops, walks and trots in the ring. Before he rides, Elan uses a curry comb and brush to groom Avery, a relaxing exercise for both horse and rider.

Trixie, another therapy pony, patiently allows her young students to pepper her with stickers, part of a learning exercise to identify the parts of a horse. (Photo by Gabby Landsverk)

For riders who use a wheelchair or other assistance to move, horsemanship provides a freedom of movement only a few other forms of therapy offer.

“The horses do most of the teaching … they teach everything from balance and strength, when to engage the muscles … They teach us how to move.” — Stefanie Dwyer

Riding has benefits outside of the track and stable as well. Dwyer said the movement of horses complements the natural biomechanics of the human body, training the muscles and promoting balance, stability and coordination.

“There is a lot of information that the horse gives us just by riding at a walk,” Dwyer said. “[Students] come off the horse and you can see their gait has definitely changed.”

Elan and another student spend some quality time with Trixie during a review of horsemanship skills. (Photo by Gabby Landsverk)

According to Russo, horses can also help riders with anxiety or other emotional disabilities by reminding them to stay grounded in the present moment.

She added that horses are similar to therapy dogs, but the riding component adds and element of trust and interdependency that can be invaluable for helping riders become both more mobile and more independent, on and off their steeds.

“They’re communicating with their horse, learning to stop and turn and tell them what to do and forming that partnership with them,” Russo said. “With these kids, it’s amazing how quickly they progress throughout the week. By Thursday, they’re already leading their horses and some of them are riding independently … much better than on day one.”

From the shyest to the most rambunctious students, the horses may not have had a lot to say, but they did have a lot to offer.