Zoe DePaul spent about 30 minutes Sunday morning sweeping a horse barn in Bell’s Corner.
It’s not how most 12-year-olds envision their weekend, but, for Zoe, being around the horses is comforting. Earlier in the day, she and a partner led a couple of horses through an obstacle course they designed.
“It’s pretty fun and comfortable to be around horses that comfort you, and they’re nice to people,” she said.
Zoe, who lives in Port Richmond, is part of a first-of-its-kind equine therapy program for the children of firefighters and paramedics that is being piloted at Pegasus Therapeutic Riding Academy, 8297 Bustleton Ave.
Pegasus has been providing therapeutic horseback riding for people with disabilities since 1982, but its program for the children of first responders was just launched in March.
Having a parent who routinely fights fires or responds to emergency situations can be stressful, and the idea behind the “Stepping Forward” program is to help kids discover positive ways to deal with that anxiety.
“We’re taking a proactive approach to mental health for the kids,” said Teresa Doherty, who directs the program. “We’re working on life skills when we’re here, but, also, it’s just a positive experience for them.”
The program is being paid for by the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 22 as part of the union’s health plan. Alexandra Manwarren, operations director at Pegasus, and Local 22 spokesman Frank Keel believe it is the first such arrangement in the country.
“That’s unheard of,” Manwarren said. “We don’t know of another first responder community that’s going through doing this proactively, for their own community.”
Thirty kids ages 6 to 15 have signed up for the eight-week program, and the feedback from parents has been positive, Doherty said. She said Local 22 is looking at funding a more extensive program next year.
Doherty and the other Pegasus instructors teach the children how to understand a horse’s body language. By paying attention to certain cues, the kids can learn how to understand how the horse is feeling and respond appropriately.
“It’s a really easy way for the kids to improve their skills without it being a therapy session,” Doherty said. “Our job is not to provide counseling or anything like that. We just teach them about horses, and what horses are here to teach us.”
Pegasus has 15 horses, and all are trained for therapeutic use, meaning they won’t get startled easily.
“These are horses that work with kids that are different all the time,” Doherty said. “So, working with these guys, they are really good at absorbing their stress. They’re not going to freak out.”
Doherty said she began thinking about the benefits of equine therapy for first responders after her longtime boyfriend became an officer with the Delaware River Port Authority. She saw how the pressure of the job impacted him and could only imagine how adding a child would complicate the situation.
“They need an outlet,” Doherty said. “They need a safe place that they can kind of be and figure everything out.”
During a recent Sunday morning session, groups took turns caring for the horses in the barn and designing obstacle courses to run them through in Pegasus’ indoor arena. Instructors emphasized the importance of problem-solving and teamwork.
“We get to have fun with horses. That’s probably the best thing,” Shane Geiger, 8, said. “It’s nice because you can make new friends, too.”
“There’s something special about every single horse,” added Andre Martinez, 11, who lives in the Northeast. “It’s better than being home.” ••