“She had about 90 days to find the right horses, write the policies and procedures, make the capital expenditures, hire the staff and provide a high quality of service,” said Louie Castriota Jr., founder of Leg Up Farm, an innovative, nonprofit therapy center for special-needs children near York, Pa.
The task was daunting, Giordano admits, but says Wilson gave her the skills and confidence she needed to establish Leg Up Farm’s program, especially the equine-facilitated therapeutics (EFT) program and the well-rounded liberal arts education she experienced.
“I owe a lot of what I’m doing now to Ann (O’Shallie)” she said, referring to her EFT instructor. “(Associate Professor of Religion Studies) Dave True was also very influential in my life. He developed my ability to think critically.”
Giordano launched Leg Up Farm’s therapeutic riding program in 2011 and since then, has hired two fellow Wilson alums – 2012 graduates Stephanie (Bachman) Fleck and Kristen Leitzell. The three, along with three instructors in training, provide about 350 therapy appointments a month to clients ages 4 through 21 with diagnoses such as autism, Down Syndrome, and neurological and mental health disorders. Many of the children have multiple challenges.
“One of the big reasons I wanted to bring Wilson grads into our program is because I knew we would be coming from the same place with very similar philosophies,” said Giordano. “Sometimes people hear the words ‘therapeutic riding’ and they think ‘pony ride. One of the things we really learned from Ann is that therapeutic riding is so much more than pony rides. These children should be learning horsemanship skills.”
By expecting more of each student, instructors not only work on children’s physical strength and stamina, but also help them develop problem-solving and communications skills, as well as giving them coping mechanisms. “I think it does huge things for their self-confidence,” Giordano said.
Fleck and Leitzell are equally passionate. “Facilities like Leg Up are the future of therapeutic riding,” said Fleck, former Wilson College Government Association (WCGA) president. “The standard is being raised. If you look down the road a few years from now, who knows what we’ll be doing?”
Kids from Leg Up Farm even compete in horse shows for all riders – not special-needs riders, according to Leitzell, who proudly announces that one of her kids recently placed third. “I’m really excited to see where we are in a few years,” she said.
Another guiding philosophy at Leg Up Farm is that therapy should be fun. With therapeutic riding, which improves balance, develops muscles and cultivates confidence, kids don’t necessarily feel like they’re working.
“It’s one of those activities where she is working and she just doesn’t know it,” said Trina Buss Sgrignoli, whose 9-year-old daughter, Hannah Buss, has Down Syndrome and has been coming to the farm for equine therapy since October 2012. Since she started therapy at Leg Up Farm, Hannah’s wide gait is narrowing, her core muscles are stronger, she sits more upright, her understanding of commands has improved.
“She really enjoys the equestrian therapy,” Sgirgnoli said. “She doesn’t understand all the benefits she gets out of it, but she likes the horse. She likes controlling the horse. She likes learning something new. It’s something that’s her own and nothing her other siblings get to do.”
Giordano feels blessed to enjoy what she’s doing every day. “There’s a huge sense of what I’m doing is contributing to a greater good,” she said. “The ability to impact someone’s life in a positive way - that’s huge.”
Leg Up Farm is currently expanding, adding four new classrooms and a wellness center with additional therapy space, pool for aquatic therapy and creative movement/adaptive dance space. Learn more about the work Giordano and the rest of the staff is doing there at www.legupfarm.org.