Equestrian adventure is good therapy for youth with disabilities

Hidden Hope, a quaint farm tucked away in the greenery of Grove City, Pa., is a hidden paradise for many Pittsburgh-area children.

The 40-acre farm, owned and operated by husband-and-wife team Bob and Donna Hoskin, offers a free horseback riding program for youth living with mental or physical disabilities. It's one of a few ranches in the region offering equestrian therapy.

Originally called the 3-H Ranch for Harnessing Hope and Happiness, the Hoskins recently changed the name to reflect the isolation of their residence and the inspiration the project gives dozens of kids and their families.

Every Thursday, the sprawling property accommodates disabled visitors who've scheduled a prior appointment. Parents begin to arrive with their children at about 4 p.m., and riding sessions run into the evening until about 7:45 p.m.

Children who board one of the farm's 11 horses are led around an outdoor ring for 45 minutes, accompanied by volunteers and parents who serve as safety spotters. After their session is over, visitors are free to stay and enjoy the pleasantry of the spacious farm, which also offers a paddleboat and a swing set for diversion.

"It's a miracle what horses can do for these kids," said Donna Hoskin, who works as a nurse at a cardiology office. "It's so great to see them laugh and progress."

The couple frequently hosts visitors with conditions such as Asperger Syndrome, autism and cerebral palsy.

"It's changed one little boy's life," Donna explained. "We had a 3-year-old boy who wasn't speaking, but then he came here and started saying 'horse'... his parents and therapists said [riding] relaxed him and made chemical connections in his brain."

The Hoskins started the program 10 years ago after inviting a handicapped child from their church to visit their farm. The young boy's enjoyment prompted them to organize the riding service, which filled both a personal and a spiritual need to help the community.

"My husband and I have no children," Donna said. "We're very strong Christians and we wanted to live as servants of our faith." Originally from Cranberry Pa, the couple began the program at their former residence and watched it develop enough to warrant moving to a new, larger ranch.

Bob Hoskin, who grew up on a farm, uses a lifetime of knowledge and experience with horses to make the program successful. When evaluating horses to serve the children, he looks for mature candidates between 5-10 years of age that "are quiet, eager to please" and not easily frightened.

To help children board the animals, he built what Donna calls the "people loader" -- two elevated platforms that riders use for support while hoisting themselves onto the saddle. Bob, who works as a financial advisor, trains horses to walk between the platforms and to be docile, patient and comfortable with new riders.

About 30 kids are registered to participate in the program, but the Hoskin's rarely see that many visitors at a time.

"Several kids always can't come because of doctors appointments or surgeries," Donna said. "And some families find the distance too far, so I always have room for more kids."

The majority of the ranch's volunteers are high school and college students, many of whom were drawn to the program due to a love of horses and the outdoors. In addition to spotting the riders, volunteers stimulate them with conversation while leading them around the ring.

In exchange for their efforts, the Hoskins allow volunteers to ride the horses and spend free time on the farm.

"We usually get teenagers who love horses, but the program makes them grow to love helping other people," Bob said.

Over the years, the Hoskins have received assistance and recognition from the community. In addition to receiving a community citizenship award, the couple recently obtained a donated supply of official horseback riding helmets to lend the children, which replaced their makeshift use of standard bicycle helmets.

"People have been really [helpful], but what makes us truly happy is seeing the kids," Donna said. "All the smiles, hugs, and kisses are worth more than any other compensation."

She added that her experience running the program is captured by her favorite quote, which she keeps prominently displayed in her kitchen:

"What do we live for if not to make this world less difficult for each other?"

For more information on the Hidden Hope horseback riding program, call 724-458-1231.

Jennifer Rizzi can be reached at 412-263-1985 or jrizzi@post-gazette.com . First Published September 20, 2009 4:00 AM


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