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Ligonier equine facility breaks ground | TribLIVE.com
Westmoreland

Ligonier equine facility breaks ground

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Steph Chambers | Trib Total Media
Mason Markosky, 14, smiles in the arms of his father Michael while holding his miniature groundbreaking ceremony shovel at the site of the future Ligonier Therapeutic Center on Friday, Aug. 28, 2015. Markosky's mother Catherine, who has two sons with special needs, created a foundation in upstate New York several years ago to open equine therapy centers for children with special needs and at-risk adolescents. Since moving to Ligonier, she’s tried to find a center for her children to attend, but many of them have waiting lists. She secured $40,000 in grants from the Pittsburgh Penguins Foundation, Citrone Fund and Staunton Farm Foundation to open her own center in Cook Township, at the corner of Stom Road and Route 711 South.

Catherine Markosky of Ligonier was initially a skeptic of hippotherapy, a form of therapy that uses horseback riding to nurture people with temporary or permanent disabilities.

A therapist suggested the treatment for Markosky’s son Mason, 14, who has Costello syndrome and cerebral palsy. Markosky, 46, worried about her son, a toddler at the time, possibly falling off the horse or getting hurt, but 12 weeks into his therapy, he could sit up, and his once stiff, rigid body started to relax.

“Once he started to sit, we were able to play with him and he could sit on a therapy ball,” she said. “He could sit in a chair at the television or sit at a chair at the table. His quality of life was changing so much.”

The Markosky family hopes to provide the same positive changes to others through the Ligonier Therapeutic Center Project, which broke ground Friday at a scenic Cook Township farm just off Route 711 South. Markosky, whose nonprofit organization has supported four similar facilities in New York, hopes to open in a year and offer equine therapy programs for at-risk youth and children with physical, mental and emotional special needs.

“Mason is pretty much the catalyst to the whole thing because without him, I would have never known about this therapy,” Markosky said.

The Markosky family previously lived in upstate New York near Ithaca. Markosky has a background in economic development and marketing, so when she learned that her son’s therapist had been paying for children’s hippotherapy out of her own pocket, she decided to start a nonprofit organization in 2008 to seek grants to provide therapeutic riding scholarships and other alternative therapy programs to special needs children and at-risk youths.

Since then, STAT, or Southern Tier Alternative Therapies, has given $315,000 for such programs.

Horseback riding is ideal for children with physical challenges because it works all of their core muscles, improving balance, flexibility and coordination, Markosky said. The horse’s warmth helps relax tense muscles.

Children on the autism spectrum reap benefits as well, she said. Her son Max, 11, has autism and has made progress in social interaction and communication through equine therapy. Pairing it with the use of Apple iPads is a method that has helped non-verbal autistic children at STAT’s other facilities. They use a speech pathology app for their “Strides” program.

“It just gives them their voice,” Markosky said.

The human-horse bond has helped numerous teenagers facing emotional challenges at STAT’s other facilities through its “Promise Project” program, developed in 2009.

“There’s something about horses,” said her husband, Michael “Mickey” Markosky, 58. “It’s more than just sitting on them. There’s a connection these kids make with them.”

Three years ago, Markosky’s family moved to Ligonier to seek better health care for Mason. Her husband is a native and has many family members in the area.

“We didn’t even want this house,” she said. “We just bought it because it was in our price range, and there were only two other houses to choose from when we moved here. Now I know it was meant to be because (the farm) abuts this property. The plan is just unfolding. I’m not even in control of it anymore. It’s just moving forward and pulling me along.”

STAT has received a $30,000 grant from the Pittsburgh Penguins Foundation and The Citrone Fund, as well as $10,000 from the Staunton Farm Foundation to build the center. On Friday, Dominion Resources’ foundation gave a $5,000 check to Markosky.

“We always look for projects that positively affect the communities that we serve,” said Donald Houser, director of regional federal, state and local affairs for Dominion Resources. “This project without a doubt is a wonderful project that will affect a whole lot of people, and we’re very proud to lend our assistance to it as it gets off the ground here in Westmoreland County.”

Markosky said the plan is to build a six-stall barn to start. Later, she wants to add an indoor riding arena and a 12-stall barn.

“The cause is tremendous,” said Mark Markosky, vice president of the Markosky Engineering Group, which is donating engineering and design services for the project. “It’s a great program. This hippotherapy has been proven to be very good. I’ve seen it with my nephews, how well it works and how it’s improved their lives.”

Nicole Chynoweth is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-850-2862 or [email protected].

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