Barbara Wertheimer wears so many hats, “my head hurts,” she laughed.
You’ll often find her weaving through the stables of Pegasus Therapeutic Riding Academy, watching riders with special needs during their lessons or hugging volunteers who double as close friends and confidants.
Off of Castor and Bustleton avenues, Pegasus is the only area riding program geared toward children and adults with disabilities, according to Wertheimer. Ranging from adult stroke victims to young children on the autism spectrum, “this is a place where it doesn’t matter what your age is — you can participate.”
They perform different exercises while on the horse, but the process teaches them how to focus, maintain balance and develop physical strength, Wertheimer said.
“They’re working with reins. They’re steering their horses through a course. They’re learning how to stop a horse. All these things sound relatively easy, but not when you’re dealing with a child on the spectrum,” she said.
Wertheimer started out as a volunteer and parent, too, in 1990. She was looking for an alternative form of physical therapy for her then 6-year-old daughter, who has mild cerebral palsy.
After a year of riding, doctors were shocked by her improvements. “From a physical standpoint, the therapeutic riding was incredibly beneficial. From a psychological standpoint, 6- and 7-year-old kids are starting to play T-ball and soccer and all these other things, which she could not do. It gave her a sport that could be her own.”
Like many volunteers, Wertheimer “got sucked in.” She eventually took on the role of executive director after founder Carol Tatum died after a battle with breast cancer in 2005.
“It was so important to me to pay it forward,” she said, “to make sure this program was here for other children like my daughter.”
With 15 horses on the property of differing shapes, sizes and breeds, riders bond with and trust the horse they ride each week.
Roughly 100 smiling volunteers are giddy to help out in any way — cleaning the stables, helping riders balance on the horse or even being on “manure patrol” — for the more than 5,000 half-hour lessons that take place throughout the year.
Now, Wertheimer is preparing for the upcoming semi-formal Carol Tatum Memorial Gala on Feb. 24 at Knowlton Mansion, evident by the clutter in her office full of items for an auction.
Wertheimer will do whatever is needed to help Pegasus — this year, she cut her salary in half. “Tikkun olam — didn’t think twice about it. … I need to give to other people the way this program gave to my child. It gave her her life.”
Jane Genesio sees the good Pegasus does for her 41-year-old son Daniel, who developed a traumatic brain injury from a motorcycle accident at 21.
Through the exercises at Pegasus, he can now sit up on Gus, a retired police horse, by himself.
“The horse walks and kind of uses the same muscles as a human,” she noted, “so he can feel his body go just like he was walking.”
“The horse’s three-part movement is very much like our movement, so it re-teaches the body and the brain how to move,” Wertheimer explained. The next program in development is geared toward children of first responders who have post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Horses are very intellectually, emotionally smart,” she added. “They can read people. They understand. And riders form bonds with the animals,” like one child who snuck carrots into his bed at night to save for his upcoming rendezvous with his horse. “That tells so much — that’s the relationship.”
Wertheimer, who used to belong to Congregation Adath Jeshurun, also helps facilitate Bar and Bat Mitzvah projects, many of which resulted in much-needed additions like large, multicolored letters and numbers drilled to the ring’s walls so riders can better understand where to steer the horse.
She often tries to pair mothers and daughters for projects to create a bonding experience.
“The year that they’re going through the Bat Mitzvah can be an emotionally stressful time between the mother and daughter, and this way if they have the bonding over being at Pegasus with the horses, it’s a bonus,” she said.
Though he is nonverbal, Mary Ann and Ray Porreca’s son Tommy lights up while riding, flashing his winning smile.
Tommy, 29, has cerebral palsy in addition to other metabolic, mitochondrial and developmental problems. Socially, coming to Pegasus once a week is his world.
“As soon as we drive in here, he starts looking around for everybody he knows,” Mary Ann Porreca said. “You don’t see that kind of heightened interest often in him.”
During the week, he frequently points to his riding helmet, alerting his parents that he’s eager to get back on his favorite horse. “All you have to do is say Clyde to him — big smile.”
Riding has given Tommy self-confidence, balance and increased upper body strength.
“I enjoy his being put into a certain structure and responding. He’s often very happy to respond to these people,” Ray Porreca added. Tommy and other pupils practice putting rings in a bucket across his body while atop Clyde, led by an instructor, which adds core strength.
Coming to Pegasus is treasured time for parents, too, where they’ve created a network of psychological support and socialization. They each have a unique bond through their children.
“I sometimes wonder whether this place is better for me or for Tom,” Mary Ann Porreca laughed.
[email protected]; 215-832-0737