In The Hole — an oft-overlooked neighborhood that straddles the border of Brooklyn and Queens — something surprising is tucked away right off the highway.
Beyond the white picket fence that runs along a busy stretch of South Conduit Avenue, there is a barnful of horses nestled between the busy highway and a residential street. The horses are owned and cared for by a nonprofit organization, GallopNYC, which provides therapeutic riding to New Yorkers with disabilities.
Under the leadership of Executive Director James Wilson, GallopNYC has transformed the scraggly strip of land, which the organization leases from the New York City Parks Department, into a pastoral oasis.
Wilson and his staff of nearly 50 employees are responsible for the upkeep of over two dozen horses, a flock of chickens, barn cats, and a gaggle of geese inherited from the previous tenants, the New York City Federation of Black Cowboys. “This is what we have, so let’s make the most of it,” he said.
For Wilson, a Texas-native with a background in rodeo, the effort is well worth it. Before the pandemic, GallopNYC was providing therapeutic riding lessons and hippotherapy, a form of physical and occupational therapy done on horseback, to more than 500 people a month—the vast majority of them children with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
COVID-19 safety protocols and budgetary constraints have reduced GallopNYC’s capacity, but the organization is still getting around 130 people on horseback every month. For Wilson, it is critical for GallopNYC to continue running despite the pandemic.
“A lot of people in our community are immuno-compromised,” Wilson said. “They need a safe place to just be.”
Lisa Hahn, whose 19-year-old daughter, Marley, is autistic and nonverbal, said GallopNYC has been instrumental in providing Marley with an activity that calms her and gives her confidence.
“It’s given her something that she’s proud of, that’s her thing,” Hahn said. “There’s this connection with the horse, I don’t know what it is, but there’s something about it that’s so therapeutic.”
Denise Owens has seen similar results with her 9-year-old son, Evan, who has been riding with GallopNYC for three years. Like Marley, Evan is nonverbal, and Owens says being stuck at home has been challenging for him. Evan’s weekly half-hour sessions at GallopNYC have provided an important outlet for him and his family, and Owens has been thrilled to watch him progress from being afraid to wear the riding helmet three years ago to riding bareback earlier this month.
“A typical child would have football, baseball, things like that. Horses are Evan’s football,” Owens said.
But GallopNYC has not just provided an outlet for the children who ride horses: It has also helped parents like Owens and Hahn build a support network of families who have children with disabilities, which Owens described as a “godsend.”
Though GallopNYC officially provides therapy through ridership to individuals with disabilities, volunteers like Geri Mazzarelli believe it helps them, too.
Mazzarelli, a bookkeeper who has been volunteering with GallopNYC since 2016, lives across the street from the location on South Conduit Avenue.
“I go over there as much as I can,” Mazzarelli said. “I try to sneak out on my lunch hour.”
Mazzarelli started out as a lead walker, leading horses for children who cannot lead the horses themselves. After a while, the dedicated volunteer became a site leader. Now, she’s GallopNYC’s head gardener, growing flowers and curating an edible garden that anyone is allowed to pick food from.
But it’s the riding that she cares most about. “It’s the joy on the children’s faces. That’s what I like to see,” said Mazzarelli.
Under Wilson’s direction, GallopNYC has created an atmosphere that is inclusive and inspiring for riders, their families and volunteers alike.
“That’s what we want to do, we want to include people,” said Wilson. “If we’re not doing that, then what’s the point?”