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Children take the reins at Horses with Hope in Bethel Park

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Andrew Russell | Trib Total Media
Mia Costa 4, of Brentwood smiles while riding Holly, a therapy horse with Horses with Hope, at the organization's stable in Bethel Park, Saturday, Sept. 20, 2014, along with Horses with Hope staff, Kate Brandle of Bloomfield, Jackie Rutledge of Mt. Lebanon and Joanne Slappo of South Park. (shown left to right) Costa has Downs Syndrome. Horses with Hope is a program that allows children with disabilities to ride horses.
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Andrew Russell | Trib Total Media
Bennett Matthew, 10, of South Fayette laughs with his dad, Dean Matthew while riding Sven, a therapy horse with Horses with Hope, at the organization's stable in Bethel Park, Saturday, Sept. 20, 2014. Matthew suffer from Cerebral Palsy. Horses with Hope is a program that allows children with disabilities to ride horses.
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Andrew Russell | Trib Total Media
Macee Peterson, 6, of South Park gets ready to ride at Horses with Hope's stable in Bethel Park, Saturday, Sept. 20, 2014. Horses with Hope is a program that allows children with disabilities to ride horses.
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Andrew Russell | Trib Total Media
Bennett Matthew, 10, of South Fayette laughs with his dad, Dean Matthew and his mom, Kristin Matthew while riding Sven, a therapy horse with Horses with Hope, at the organization's stable in Bethel Park, Saturday, Sept. 20, 2014. Matthew suffer from Cerebral Palsy. Horses with Hope is a program that allows children with disabilities to ride horses.

Horses with Hope moved from the South Park Fairgrounds to a Bethel Park farm in August, and the nonprofit that serves people with special needs now has outdoor and indoor riding arenas and 10 acres of pasture.

“Our new facility accommodates all of our needs to operate year-round, which is a great benefit for our clients,” said Anne Davis, who founded the organization in 2007.

Horses with Hope keeps four horses, plus a miniature horse. Volunteers offer two programs: therapeutic riding for special needs students and adults, and equine-assisted learning for troubled children and teens.

The organization has agreements with the Mon Valley School in Jefferson Hills, Pathfinder School in Bethel Park and Conroy Education Center in the North Side, as well as Southwood Psychiatric Hospital and other schools and service providers.

Lessons address riders' needs and include horsemanship skills such as grooming, tacking and mounted riding. Davis said she plans to expand the program for at-risk youths and to offer services to veterans and their families.

“Our goal is to create an equine facility that can be used by the surrounding communities as well as universities, especially those in medical fields, to conduct research studies” on equine therapy, she said.

Bobbie List said her daughter, Danielle, 13, of McKeesport is one of the newer riders. Danielle has a genetic disorder that impacts her speech, balance and coordination.

Once a week, she and Horses with Hope instructors work on building her core muscles with balancing activities.

“It takes a lot of work for Danielle to maintain her balance in the saddle and to retain good posture,” List said.

“I like Horses with Hope because it is fun. I don't have a favorite horse; I like them all,” said Danielle, a seventh-grader at Founders Hall School in McKeesport. “I get to ride the horse, play games on the horse, and I help to take care of the horse.”

Ann O'Shaille, executive director of the Pennsylvania Council on Therapeutic Horsemanship in Chambersburg, said research shows riding can help people with special needs to achieve “physical, psychological, cognitive and behavioral and communication goals.”

Davis said she learned about therapeutic riding while researching Down syndrome and was inspired to start Horses with Hope. Her daughter, Jamie Lynn, 11, has Down syndrome.

“I believe it is my God-given purpose in life, and each step has been a confirmation of it,” Davis said of running the organization. “Each person involved — whether a rider, parent or volunteer — is a different person because of their experience here.”

Cassie Unico, 14, of Upper St. Clair also enjoys riding horses once each week.

Her mother, Donna, said Cassie has a neurological impairment and is lifted onto a horse from a raised mounting block. Volunteers lead and walk on each side of Cassie, a student at The Day School at the Children's Institute in Squirrel Hill.

“She cannot physically do a lot of sports activities, but this is one that makes her experience being fast and mobile,” Unico said.

Niko Hyapas, 6, of Munhall has been riding for three years. A first-grader in the St. Anthony School Program at St. Therese School, Niko, who has Down syndrome, rides on Saturdays.

His mother, Heather, said Niko puts his riding hat on when they arrive, tells the horse, “Walk on,” and holds the reins now. “I am so proud of him and how far he has come,” she said.

Chasity Capasso is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.

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