HackensackUMC Connects Young Patients with the Power of Ponies

August 14, 2015 12:20 PM
Dana Spett, founder and executive director of Pony Power; Gabriella Pereira, Pony Power participant; Jenn Caffrey, Pony Power instructor; Brianna Devine, Pony Power volunteer.

Hackensack University Medical Center is connecting young patients and their families with the benefits of Pony Power Therapies, a nonprofit in Mahwah, NJ, providing therapeutic riding and other horse-assisted activities to special needs and at-risk populations. Tucked in the foothills of the Ramapo Mountains, pediatric patients ride horses, learn about organic farming and beekeeping, and leave their mark in the form of handprints on fence boards dotting the farm.

The four-day summer sessions, one in July and one in August, are funded by a portion of the proceeds from the 2015 Susan Zabransky Hughes Memorial 5K Run/Walk. Combining her love of horses and her dedication to helping others, Susan Zabransky Hughes served as a volunteer and board member at Pony Power. She was active in initiating a therapeutic riding program for children treated at the Joseph M. Sanzari Children’s Hospital at HackensackUMC. The Run for Sue Committee allocated $25,000 of the proceeds to the Joseph M. Sanzari Children’s Hospital for children to participate in Pony Power.

“It is an honor and a privilege for my husband, Bill, and me to help provide scholarships for patients of the children’s hospital in memory of our daughter,” said Susan Zabransky. “The Run for Sue Committee is thrilled to be able to help young people to benefit from this extraordinary experience.”

“Gabriella loves Pony Power,” Elaina Lucena-Pereira said of her eight-year-old daughter. Diagnosed with leukemia in kindergarten, Gabriella’s treatment ended weeks before her Pony Power experience began. “It’s a great program,” Elaina said. “Siblings have a chance to share the experience and given what Gabby went through, it’s good to know that we can be together in this way as a family.”

Cindy Steele, M.D., associate director of the Institute for Pediatric Cancer and Blood Disorders at HackensackUMC, treated Gabriella. “Gabriella was treated for high-risk acute lymphoblastic leukemia with intensive chemotherapy for a year and then maintenance chemotherapy for another 18 months,” said Dr. Steele. “Chemotherapy can affect balance, coordination and energy levels. A program like Pony Power helps these patients regain their confidence and enjoyment of physical activity. Riding such a powerful, graceful animal empowers these children and reconnects them to their bodies in a unique way.”

“Susan Zabransky Hughes was an amazing woman, the whole family is. She loved horses and she loved to ride,” said Dana Spett, founder and executive director of Pony Power Therapies.

Dana, a lifelong equestrian who discovered therapeutic horseback riding while researching alternative therapies for one of her daughters with mild special needs, explained the inherent benefits. “Horses communicate with their peers entirely through body language, providing excellent metaphors for human interaction and relationships. When engaging with them, people learn how to stay present and focused – they experience life in the moment without the worry of usual stresses or concerns. It’s a forgiving process. There are no mistakes, there is only try again.”

Parents of patients have an opportunity to spend their own time in the ring engaging in equine exercises. For Elaina, the horses offered a physical manifestation of concepts she had plenty of time to consider during the quiet moments of Gabriella’s illness. She says Pony Power has reinforced personal reflections about creating safe spaces, setting attainable goals and overcoming obstacles.

Dana also pointed to the physiological benefits of therapeutic riding. “The movement of a horse not only simulates human gait, which helps riders strengthen and develop muscles, but it’s variable. They startle, they sneeze; they respond to touch – it’s a sensory-filled activity. Most importantly, horseback riding is something that all individuals – regardless of their ability – can do together. That’s why we’re thrilled to be able to include siblings as part of this program, offering a unique – and memorable – shared experience.”

Saddled up on a pony named Red Hot at the end of her session, Gabriella gives a little nudge with her legs. With a lead instructor and two side-walkers assisting, Gabby tells Red Hot, “Three, two, one, walk on!” And then, with a broad smile across her face and her hands high in the air, Gabby and Red Hot trot together, looking directly at the path before them and the bright sunshine ahead.

Photo (left to right): Dana Spett, founder and executive director of Pony Power; Gabriella Pereira, Pony Power participant; Jenn Caffrey, Pony Power instructor; Brianna Devine, Pony Power volunteer.

About Pony Power Therapies

Founded in 2000, Pony Power Therapies gives special needs and at-risk children and adults a unique opportunity to ride, care for and interact with horses. Its riding and non-riding activities enhance individuals’ physical, social and emotional well-being in a safe, nurturing farm environment. Pony Power offers recreational activities that help riders gain greater flexibility, balance and muscle strength, as well as explore and develop unique relationships with the horse, which can lead to increased confidence, patience and self-esteem, and foster feelings of independence and pride. Pony Power instructors are either certified or in training to be certified by Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH) International. Pony Power Therapies is recognized as a Premier Accredited Center (PAC) through PATH International. For more information, please visit www.ponypowernj.org.

About Hackensack University Medical Center

HackensackUMC, a nonprofit teaching and research hospital located in Bergen County, NJ, is the largest provider of inpatient and outpatient services in the state. Founded in 1888 as the county’s first hospital, it is the flagship hospital of Hackensack University Health Network, one of the largest health networks in the state comprised of 1,717 beds, more than 10,000 team members and 3,300 credentialed physicians. HackensackUMC was listed as the number one hospital in New Jersey in U.S. News & World Report’s 2015-16 Best Hospital rankings - maintaining its place atop the NJ rankings since the rating system was introduced. It was also named one of the top four New York Metro Area hospitals. HackensackUMC is the only hospital in New Jersey, New York and New England to be named one of Healthgrades America's 50 Best Hospitals™ nine consecutive years, and receive the Healthgrades Distinguished Hospital Award for Clinical Excellence™ 13 years in a row. The medical center is one of the top 25 green hospitals in the country according to Practice Greenhealth, and received 23 Gold Seals of Approval™ by the Joint Commission – more than any other hospital in the country. It was the first hospital in New Jersey and second in the nation to become a Magnet® recognized hospital for nursing excellence; receiving its fifth consecutive designation in 2014. HackensackUMC has created an entire campus of award-winning care, including: the John Theurer Cancer Center; the Heart & Vascular Hospital; and the Sarkis and Siran Gabrellian Women’s and Children’s Pavilion, which houses the Joseph M. Sanzari Children’s Hospital and Donna A. Sanzari Women’s Hospital, which was designed with The Deirdre Imus Environmental Health Center and listed on the Green Guide’s list of Top 10 Green Hospitals in the U.S. HackensackUMC is the Hometown Hospital of the New York Giants and the New York Red Bulls and is Official Medical Services Provider to The Barclays PGA Golf Tournament. It remains committed to its community through fundraising and community events. To learn more, visit: www.HackensackUMC.org.     




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