Fort Plains Road may not be far from the hustle and bustle of Route 9, but when you pull into the Celtic Charms Therapeutic Horsemanship, the busy highway might as well be a world away.
The purpose of Celtic Charms, according to its website is to "provide people with physical, cognitive and emotional disabilities a program of individualized instruction in a safe and supportive, eco-friendly farm environment."
Dina Parrello who works at the farm and is one of the founders said both children and adults with a wide variety of diseases and disorders come to take the lessons, which can help them in a variety of ways. In addition to the horses the farm also has other animals like chickens, dogs and rabbits as well as a pig for guests to spend time with and learn from. "A lot of the children that we deal with in particular and the adults especially on the autism spectrum have a lot of sensory processing issues," she said. "So anything that's tactile for them is wonderful."
Parrello said the whole experience is beneficial for the students who come to the farm. "It helps them in so many other areas in their life, especially in the social spectrum," she said. "To get some feedback from a horse about communication is different than us telling you you need to be clear about what you're asking. It's really remarkable some of the things that we've seen." That includes some of the students seeing their ability to talk increase during the time of their lessons, proving the success of the efforts.
With owners Christine and Bill Landuyt and their friend Nancy Forsyth, Parrello said their vision of the farm has grown and continues to grow every day. "We're very proud of what we're doing here and it was kind of a daunting undertaking," she said. "One of the major goals and I hear this from pretty much every parent is they just want their kid to have fun and they can come here and be kids and they're not somebody with a disability, they're an equestrian."
Mrs. Landuyt said she and her husband have enjoyed having their farm serve such a special purpose. "When you get to a certain age as a lot of us ladies are, I think it gets to the point that it's time to give back," she said. "We fell into theraputic horsemanship. I loved horses and heard about the program with Monmouth County and all I wanted to do was work with the horses."
That changed very quickly. "The next thing I knew I was loving the lessons, working with the students and then my husband started volunteering and he fell in love with his first student as a volunteer and it was just something that became a work of love," she said. "It's the best high that you will get from anything else because you get so much more than you give because these kids, when they love their riding, the joy of it, you can't explain it."
Her husband, who still works in the city a few days a week, said he is glad to be a part of such an expansive project. "It's a nice balance," he said of working in the city and living in the country.
Seeing how successful the therapy can be makes the efforts that much more worthwhile. "It's an extraordinary thing to see what this does for the students. For me, the combination of seeing these students develop and get to know them better and then watch these amazing animals work was something that is an experience well beyond anything that I've ever had a chance to be a part of."
From the outside Celtic Charms looks like any number of other equestrian facilities throughout town and the county with the towering barn and the peaceful animals grazing in the fields. When you talk to the people at farm, it does not take long to realize the lessons they teach at the facility are about much more than the proper way to ride a horse.
Parrello said the idea behind starting the farm came from the desire to help people in a variety of ways. "We really wanted to have a place where children and adults with disabilities could come and also a place in the community where people could come and volunteer," she said.
It is the volunteers that she said help make the farm work. "All of these community centers are volunteer run. It's very expensive to run this type of program and you don't really recover your costs through lesson fees. We really depend on volunteers helping us."
One of the parents who brings her son to the farm is Fran Pinto who said it has been a very enjoyable experience not only for him, but for her to see him enjoying it as well. "It's wonderful here," she said. "He gets not only the experience with the horses, but with the chickens, the pig, the dogs. He's more hands on." That includes taking care of his horse and everything involved in that process.
Pinto's son is Autistic and said he has been riding since he was 4-years-old. In the years since, she said she has seen impressive results "It helps him to calm down, be focused a little more and he's very comfortable with the horses," she said. "It just gives him a sense of calmness." Even being considerably smaller than his horse, Pinto said he was never afraid of the animal.
Seeing her son having so much fun makes it that much better for her, "To actually really enjoy doing something and he has a skill. He's very talented," she said. Making the drive from Little Silver, Pinto said her son comes once a week while she now volunteers a few days a week at the farm.
Since opening a year ago the farm's operations have grown both in the number of employees and students. There are currently 70 students taking lessons at the farm and each lesson requires a leader, someone to walk alongside the horse and an instructor for each student. All told the property is 27 acres giving riders plenty of places to explore during their lessons.
It is clear from walking around the expansive property that there is plenty for the volunteers to do. Whether it is taking care of the animals, collecting the eggs from the chicken coop or just taking the horses for a ride the peaceful environment is a welcome break from the busy world around the farm.
Parrello said not only do the volunteers have to be trained, but the horses also have to learn how to properly handle the students. She said the ideal therapeutic horses are between 12 and 15-years-old. She said the horses have to be "very quiet" and be able to control themselves no matter what the students might do near them.
In addition to the benefits of taking care of the animals, Parrello said riding the animals is also extremely beneficial. "The input of that movement creates to the rider's brain the sensation that they're actually doing the walking," she said. "So much of what we do is muscle memory. Plus it helps to build core strength because you have to right yourself about 100 times a minute just to keep yourself up."
With children as young as 4-years-old taking lessons, Parrello said the animals can be scary at first, but that the students generally adjust well and eventually end up enjoying their time with the horses.
For those who cannot afford the lessons, the farm does offer a scholarship program, which runs for 12 weeks. During that time the students are assigned an instructor where goals are set depending on their needs. She said that can be a simple as sequencing getting on the horse and where they want the majestic animal to go. "They just get better at it," she said. "The biggest thing for us is position and balance because without that you're not going to ride well."
Whatever the reason the students or volunteers come to the farm, Parrello said even if they are new to horses they generally enjoy their time. "They come for whatever reason. This is a wonderful volunteer opportunity because it is hands on and the kids get close, the riders get close to the volunteers because they become part of the team," she said. "If your team isn't right you're not going to have a good lesson."
All the students who take lessons are required to wear helmets on the horses and there are other safety precautions taken to ensure they are in a good position during their lessons.
The farm is closed on Sunday and Monday but lessons are available five days a week. Individual lessons are $50 for 45 minutes while group lessons are $40. For more information call 732-987-5333 or email email@example.com.