Volunteering at Gallop NYC
Howard Beach, NY is nestled cozily into the Southwest portion of Queens. Across its Northern and Western borders runs the very busy Belt Parkway, a major thoroughfare transporting thousands of travelers to points between Staten Island and Long Island every day.
JFK Airport – the busiest of the 7 airports that serve NYC – juts up against the Eastern border. And Jamaica Bay and its estuary curl up along the South.
The neighborhoods within Howard Beach reflect its history. Each area showcases the housing style typical at the time of development.
One neighborhood, built directly after WWII, spans street after street of quaint cape-cod and raised-ranch homes on 50 x 100 lots, with tiny, neatly maintained, front yards.
A few streets over you’ll find larger two-story homes with Dutch-angled roofs, built in the 1950s. Each with street-level entries jutting out from the main house like a chin. These homes have bigger front yards – – almost every one delineated by ornate gates and fences.
The newest neighborhoods have 6-story red-brick apartment buildings and shared condos.
More than 26,000 people live in this busy, vibrant, urban 2.3 square mile area that is Howard Beach.
This is a fact I find almost impossible to believe as I stand looking out across a large, outdoor, riding arena surrounded by trees and listening to the cluck-cluck-cluck of a few chickens and the neighing of horses and ponies.
Two white geese are splashing in a small plastic kiddie pool off to the side.
Behind me, a long red stable barn runs out towards two fields where horses are stretching their legs and enjoying the morning sun.
A few more horses and ponies are grazing on fresh hay in a gated paddock attached to the side of the barn.
It’s hard to believe I disembarked from the busy NYC Subway’s A-Train less than a mile from here!
I am at Sunrise Stables in Howard Beach, Queens, one of Gallop NYC’s three locations.
I am here to volunteer for the morning – – helping work in the barn and lend a hand wherever needed.
Gallop NYC provides therapeutic horsemanship to veterans and people with developmental, emotional, social, and physical disabilities.
Their goal is to help individuals with physical, verbal, and learning skills… inspiring them to live their lives as fully and independently as possible.
Weekly Therapeutic Riding Sessions are led by PATH International certified therapeutic riding instructors. Trained volunteers are on hand to assist each rider.
The lessons provide the opportunity for students to learn how to ride while setting individual goals.
These goals translate to the world beyond the stable.
Learning how to build a bond with a horse, how to care for a horse, how to lead a horse, understanding how horses perceive the world – each these develop skills useful in daily life, such as: balance, control, muscle use and strength, patience, focus, empathy, emotional perception, and confidence.
In addition to the therapeutic riding lessons, Gallop NYC also has two unique programs for Veterans:
- Riding for Veterans trains participants how to bond with and ride a horse and includes special breathing and physical techniques. Participants report decreased anxiety and depression, more focus in the workplace, more overall confidence, and the strengthening of leadership skills.
- Groundwork for Veterans focuses participants on how to care for horses. Through this program they learn important verbal and non-verbal communication skills, patience, confidence, and leadership skills as they actively take on horse care responsibilities such as grooming, tackling, lead walking, lunging and other activities.
Gallop NYC also provides Hippotherapy sessions, which use the horse’s movement as a therapeutic rehabilitative treatment. The program is designed to improve coordination, balance, core stability, muscle tone, sensorimotor function, and overall strength. Sessions are conducted by a physical or occupational therapist. The therapist adds motor tasks to the horse’s movements to address the specific needs of the patient such as sitting, standing, walking, changing the horse’s direction or gait, and working with props.
I started the day helping muck the stables. The horses were out in pasture or already in the middle of lessons, so our team had time to clean out the stables and then provide fresh hay and water.
It was a super-hot day (Accuweather’s “real feel” listed at 99 degrees and humid), so frequent water breaks for all the volunteers, workers, and animals kept our energies up.
The volunteer coordinator who ran the barn staff and one of the head volunteers (who volunteers several times a week) were very helpful in showing me the ropes and allowing me to help in a wide variety of tasks. They also provided me with a lot of information about the horses and the programs.
In addition to mucking the stalls, I helped clean the water buckets and food buckets, as well as a variety of other equipment for the barn and horses.
Prior to coming for the day I was asked to watch a few videos provided by the organization which detailed how to behave around, and interact with, the horses.
The videos also explained in detail how volunteers help during the lessons by walking alongside the horse and supporting the rider for safety. I found the videos very helpful and useful. They definitely prepared me for the day!
Later that morning I had the opportunity to be a support volunteer walking alongside a horse during a rider’s session. The therapist in charge of the lesson gave me very specific and detailed instructions to ensure everyone was safe and the rider had any support they needed.
The student had been taking ongoing lessons so was experienced in riding. My job was to walk alongside the horse and hold my arm across the rider’s thigh while holding the edge of the saddle with my hand.
There was another volunteer on the other side of the horse and a third volunteer leading the horse with the reins. The instructor gave very specific directions to the rider to have them practice a variety of motor skills, posture setting, verbal communication, and more.
After the first time around the arena, the volunteers walking next to the horse were asked to let the rider’s legs go so that they had more independence and control. We continued to walk alongside to ensure rider safety. At this point the front-walker leading the horse helped the rider respond to the instructor’s directions to weave between cones, stop walking, start walking and more. The instructor also kept the rider focused on correct posture, proper body movement to direct the horse, and proper arm, leg and foot positions so all the correct muscles were engaged. The instructor’s passion for their work was inspiring.
The rider was very focused and seemed to be greatly enjoying the lesson!
At the end of the lesson the instructor and one of the aides helped the rider dismount. Myself and the other side walker volunteer stayed close by in case an extra set of hands were needed. It was very safe and the rider was very confident in their actions! They dismounted like a champ!
I was able to assist with a second lesson as well. I felt very lucky to participate in the training.
In between lessons I was able to help with other barn chores. It was clear the barn managers and volunteers truly enjoy caring for the horses. I found that very motivating.
I did have a favorite horse by end of day – Sadie. She was so gentle and loved scratches on her forehead.
Throughout my time that day I was continually surprised by the peaceful beauty of the surroundings. I kept thinking about how unexpected this was – a magical place within the densely-populated, hustle and bustle of Queens.
I was energized by the excitement and happiness of the students. They were working hard and learning lots. And they were making very special memories. I am positive they each had happy stories to tell their families about their lessons.
It was a joyful day!
Transitioning back to the city atmosphere as I walked the .8 mile back to the A-Train, I thought about the unexpected moments of the day – looking into the curious eye of a horse a few inches away, finding a beautiful rural farm in the middle of a busy city, seeing the joy on the faces of the students, meeting wonderful people who devote their time regularly to the organization….
Experiencing the unexpected affects how we see the world. It shines a light on something new, shifts perspectives, and inspires. It opens us up to thinking creatively. It is a chance to break away from life’s usual script, and a reminder that doing so is good for you!
I greatly enjoyed the day. The staff, the instructor, and the other volunteers were wonderful!
And I could tell through my interactions with the students that they were inspired by and felt joy from their experience. A chance to break away from their daily script to enjoy something special!
It helped me remember positive surprises and unexpected moments are important.
How can you bring more of the unexpected into your life and create small positive surprises?
It starts with curiosity. Pick a topic that sounds interesting and dig into it, search for a nearby organization you can volunteer with, or try shaking up your routine with a random walk (focusing on searching for unique beauty around you). Even looking at things you see every day with a new perspective can be a happy unexpected surprise.
If you remain curious as you do these things, you will be surprised at what opens up for you and within you. You can shake up your life with joy! And sharing those moments with others through story is part of the fun! Pulling others along with you into moments of curiosity and wonder spreads the benefits of the unexpected.
If you are interested in learning more about Gallop NYC, in volunteering with the organizaiton, or in donating to support their programs, please click this link: GallopNYC
In addition to the Howard Beach, Queens, location, Gallop NYC has locations in Forest Hills, Queens, (a 30-horse stable and indoor riding arena and an outdoor bridle path) and Prospect Park, Brooklyn (they transport horses into the park, near the Parade Grounds, for lessons). If you live near any of those areas and would like more information about their programs, you can check out this link: programs — GallopNYC
Thank you for journeying with me this week!