Life-Changing Therapy Work Inspired by Organizational Joy   

Written by Kaitlin Hill 

Photos by Sienna Turecamo Photography 

For the team at Northern Virginia Therapeutic Riding Program in Clifton, improving quality of life for their patients is all in a day’s work. The organization, which celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2020, offers a range of equine-assisted physical therapy, occupational therapy, and psychotherapy programs for children and adults with disabilities, marginalized communities, and military personnel. The program’s already admirable aim is made even more meaningful by the foundation of genuine joy on which all operations are so obviously based. “One of our organizational values is joy, and that’s what the horses bring to everybody,” shares NVTRP’s executive director, Kelsey Gallagher. But more than the horses, joy seems to be a requisite quality for each member of the staff and the many volunteers who are dedicated to making a positive impact on all who enter their barn. And with some recently achieved expansion and plans for more, Gallagher and her team have their sights set on spreading the joy even further for years to come.  

“The program started in 1980, when therapeutic riding and equine-assisted services were really new to the United States,” Gallagher explains. “At first, the idea of putting people with disabilities on horses seemed a little shocking.” When word of the benefits spread, a group in Clifton, Virginia, decided to bring the practice to their community. “It started with a couple of volunteers with borrowed horses in somebody’s field. And for the first couple of decades, we had a nomadic existence.” 

Gallagher, who has been with the program for 20 years, says the goal was always to have a permanent address, but it wasn’t until an unfortunate incident that the opportunity presented itself. “It was just one of those weird life things that through tragedy, something great worked out.” NVTRP experienced a barn fire in 2007 and while all the horses survived, the venue and equipment did not. “We were looking for a new place, and we were fortunate that this property became an option to rent,” Gallagher says. They moved to Little Full Cry Farm in December 2007 and instantly knew they wanted it to become their forever home. “So, we fundraised to buy it,” Gallagher notes. Five years of fundraising later, NVTRP was able to purchase the 17-acre farm, now named O’Shaughnessy Farm, where they remain today. 

At the farm, NVTRP offers a handful of distinct programs: therapeutic riding, occupational and physical therapy incorporating horses, equine-assisted learning, and psychotherapy incorporating horses. 

Grants and Communications Manager Shelby Morrison says, “We fall under the umbrella of PATH international, or the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship. That is who we have our accreditation through.” She adds, “The physical therapy and occupational therapy sessions are within a medical model of treatment. It’s the same as if you were going to a traditional physical therapy, just with a horse incorporated.” 

Sydney Sawyer, a physical therapist at NVTRP adds, “I treat patients using horses…I am using the movement of the horse to affect different functional outcomes. My goal isn’t to have them learn to ride, it’s to use the horse as part of my physical therapy plan.” And Gallagher adds, “[Patients] are working on therapy goals of a certain amount of strength or flexibility or coordination.” 

Anita Saplan brought her son Mason to NVTRP to address physical challenges resulting from his cerebral palsy diagnosis.  “It’s non-traditional…but being on a horse helps open his hips which are really tight because of his legs crossing over when he was little,” she says. “After therapy, he stands a little taller when he walks, his legs don’t cross over, and his core is much stronger.” 

For Mason, who has worked with Sawyer for four years, the changes aren’t just physical. “It’s the social aspect of the volunteers too. He loves going. There are two [people] he absolutely adores, his therapist, Sydney, and one of the volunteers, Ginny,” Saplan says. The fun that comes with getting to spend time around horses makes the session seem less like a doctor’s appointment and more like an adventure. Wendy Baird, NVTRP’s development director says, “Physical therapy is hard. It hurts and it’s hard, but then they come here to the horses, and they don’t really even know that they are working. It’s just fun and they are motivated.” 

That same concept of beneficial distraction applies to the equine-assisted psychotherapy and their work with veterans too. “Those sessions are unmounted…but the beautiful thing of working with a horse is that it forces you to stay in the moment. The horse requires you to remain calm and to be present. You get a break from whatever else might be going on in your life,” Morrison says. This translates to their work with local military organizations to address PTSD and substance use disorder. 

“The horse requires you to remain calm and to be present. You get a break from whatever else might be going on in your life.”

– Morrison 

NVTRP can take its services on the road too, and often use the miniature horses Teddy and Eleanor, who are easier to transport. “We also take horses to senior homes and assisted living facilities that have high populations of dementia,” Morrison explains. “Or we partner with different school groups or after school programs to work on academic and life skills. [This] can include communication, trust building, teamwork.” 

“In DC, we take the horses to the Washington School for Girls which is in the Anacostia area and we [have] a leadership curriculum. Teddy helps teach lessons about being a good citizen, using listening skills, and paying attention. When you are working with horses you have to be mindful of yourself,” Gallagher says. “The kids are engaged because it is fun to interact with animals, but it also helps them become stronger, more self-aware, and more confident.” 

“We are helping make people stronger, more confident, it’s really making the world a brighter place.”

– Gallagher 

The final piece of the puzzle is therapeutic riding, the service NVTRP was built on. “Therapeutic riding is basically an adapted horseback riding lesson. Through riding, they are maintaining strength, balance, confidence, and having fun,” Gallagher shares. “What’s nice about having both programs is that a client can graduate from physical therapy to therapeutic riding.” 

The long list of services is driven by community need and staff dedication. “The beauty of being a small nonprofit is that we can adapt and see where there’s a need and really fit that,” Gallagher explains. And they are planning to offer even more, with the recent completion of their indoor arena. “I am still pinching myself that we finally did it,” exclaims Gallagher, full of enthusiasm. 

Morrison emphasizes that the new facility will have a significant impact on the number of people they can serve, saying, “It’s going to give us the ability to grow our program by an estimated 60%.” The team at NVTRP hopes that the expanded capacity will help them cut down on their two-year long waitlist, a result of having a high retention rate.“ Once someone is in, they’re in,” Gallagher shares. 

That holds true for volunteers too, of which they have 150 throughout the week. “A lot of our volunteers have been here for 10 years, if not more,” according to Gallagher. She attributes that to a ripple effect they call “vibrations of happiness.” 

“We talk about the ripples of volunteering, the work we do for our clients makes such an impact, and what the volunteers gain from that makes an impact. Actually, one of our board members called it ‘vibrations of happiness.’ Maybe Mason is on the horse having a good day and feeling stronger. He goes home feeling better, so his family feels better. And the volunteers who are a part of it feel great because they were a part of something positive. And then they go home feeling better. Vibrations of happiness,” Gallagher says with a smile. 

Need more proof? Just ask Mason’s mom. “If it ever came to an end, it would be devastating. I get emotional thinking about it. People never leave the program because it is just too great — the volunteers, the employees, the communication, everything.  It’s the best I’ve seen in Mason’s 11 years,” she says.

The importance of what they do isn’t lost on any of the staff at NVTRP. To them, it is more than a job — it’s a calling. When asked what is most rewarding about her job, Gallagher tears up. “I know what a tremendous impact our small organization makes. It is truly changing lives. I get emotional talking about it, because I feel like we are really making a difference through the horses. We are helping make people stronger, more confident, it’s really making the world a brighter place.” Morrison echoes her sentiment saying, “The most amazing thing is to make the world a little brighter, a little happier, one horse at a time.” ML

This article first appeared in the January 2022 Issue.