A child reacts with glee as Leg Up Farm’s Equine Director, Megan Giordano, introduces him to one of the farm’s recently added equines.
To a kid with a disability or developmental disorder, Leg Up Farm must look like heaven.
Instead of sterile institutions, kids find color, toys, playhouses, animals and happy faces. Instead of running from appointment to appointment, they and their families find a place where most if not all their needs can be met in one location. While their child or sibling undergoes treatment that feels like play, families can relax in a light-filled atrium or in comfortable rocking chairs overlooking the scenic 18 acre farm, or attend classes that help them learn coping and teaching skills to use at home.
Recently, Leg Up Farm, located in Mt. Wolf, York County, added equine assisted therapy to the roster of treatment options. Eight horses, selected for their soundness, good minds and an amazing ability to be patient, munch hay in large box stalls with Dutch door-type windows to the outside.
The more than 20 children currently participating in the equine program – dozens more are in intake waiting for capacity to expand -- spend 30 minutes riding and 30 minutes grooming and putting the horse away. The barn has four handicapped-accessible grooming stalls that accommodate children in wheelchairs or with walkers. Each horse is used for just one lesson per day. “It’s very important that they not just do their job, but love their job,” explained Equine Director Megan Giordano. Currently, she is Leg Up Farm’s only instructor, though a second certified instructor will be added in May.
Giordano also currently teaches one day a week at Wilson College, her alma mater; her adjunct professorship will end with the semester. “I teach varied teaching techniques centered on therapeutic riding,” she said. “Wilson College is one of the few colleges that offer a four year program in therapeutic riding.”
The horses need to cope with lots of different disabilities – bouncing, steering, mounting from the wrong side. “They need to be able to deal with all of that without moving an ear. They can’t show a moment of nervousness. It takes hours and hours of training before a kid can get on them,” Giordano said. She and her staff role play situations the horses will encounter, with a helper playing the part of a child. The current horses have been in training since January.
Many of the horses are in schooling programs outside of their therapeutic duties. “It’s fundamentals, teaching them to be soft, round and working through their backs,” she said. The farm has five pastures and the horses receive generous turnout to keep them from burning out. “Safety is my first concern – I’m very strict about it.”
Leg Up Farm just took two minis on trial, who, if they pass all the tests, will be used not for riding (their short stride is too choppy) but for developing fine and gross motor skills through grooming and being led through an obstacle course. “It’s a neat opportunity for a child who lives with limits to lead an animal through an obstacle course or have a mini do a trick. The confidence building is amazing,” Giordano said. “Everything is different the first time they interact with a horse. Children are willing to do things they wouldn’t otherwise do.”
One of a Kind
Leg Up Farm is, as far as the staff knows, the only program nationwide where a wide variety of therapies is available for children all under one roof. A child’s cognitive, emotional, social and motor needs are assessed and a plan is developed for the individual that is not necessarily based on a diagnosis. The goal is to help them become the best person that they can be.
“I collaborate with the other therapists on goals, and we all work toward the same thing. The progress children make because of that collaboration is awesome,” Giordano said. Leg Up Farm also offers reading, speech, occupational and physical therapies. In addition to horses, therapy animals include dogs, goats, donkeys and alpacas.
A Way to Give Back
Leg Up Farm is the embodiment of a vision television advertising executive Louie Castriota and his wife, dressage trainer Laurie, had of a way to give back to the community using horses. Their vision of a small therapeutic riding program at their farm exploded in urgency and magnitude when their young daughter, Brooke, was diagnosed with mitochondrial disease, a metabolic disorder that causes cognitive and motor function delays, just six months later.
In their search for the optimal treatment for Brooke, Louie and Laurie found huge gaps in availability and affordability of services for children with special needs. Brooke's diagnosis moved Louie and Laurie to significantly widen the scope of their vision for Leg Up Farm to a facility that would be provide comprehensive services, customization, and coordination of therapy for children with a wide variety of needs.
From the time Castriota filed for 501c3 status, thirteen years elapsed before Leg Up Farm opened in April, 2010. While he held down a full time job, Louie committed each week for 13 years to make a step toward opening the facility. Though his background is in business, not therapy, Castriota says his job helped. “I worked with business owners, and I understand the challenges they face. And I had thirteen years of hands on training while bringing the facility to life.”
A fundraising dynamo, Castriota has raised millions of dollars through a combination of private contributions, public fundraising events, and state, federal, and foundation grants. In November 2008, after pursuing it for nine years, Leg Up Farm finally received a $5.6 million loan from USDA Rural Development and York Traditions Bank.
The equine facilities followed the opening of Leg Up Farm by a year. The riding program was originally to operate in an outdoor arena adjacent to the 20,000 square foot main building. A grant allowed the facility to build a beautiful, spacious indoor – with the barn, measuring a total of 27,750 square feet -- that, Castriota hopes, will be serving a hundred young riders by the end of the year. Leg Up Farm currently serves 375 kids, with 140 more on the waiting list. Louie’s goal is to be serving a thousand within three years.
“We place no barriers for parents, who can just call and express their needs. We will evaluate and serve them if we can. A lot of services offered by the physical, occupational and speech therapists are billed to insurance. Animal assisted services are cash pay on a sliding scale,” he said.
Castriota sees the value of Leg Up Farm in daughter Brooke’s huge smile when she mounts a horse. Brooke, now 14, “gets tired easily but her posture while trotting is balanced, aligned and perfect, unlike her posture off the horse,” he said. “it’s therapy, without the child knowing it’s therapy.”
Leg Up Farm has embarked on a $5 million capital campaign to make a dent in the waiting list, provide services not otherwise available in the community and to accept Medicaid. The plans include therapy gardens for nutrition and for families to enjoy, a therapy pool, gym, auditorium and more classrooms. Matthew’s Town, a miniature village of stores sponsored by local businesses, is under construction. The village houses the reading specialist and her two licensed therapy dogs. Children learn life skills like pumping gas, and kids who are hard to manage in public can practice behaviors that may allow them to be out in public more often.
Leg Up Farm operates Monday through Friday only, and Giordano hopes to make the huge indoor available to the local equestrian community on weekends. To learn more about Leg Up Farm, visit legupfarm.org or phone (717) 266-9294.