Healing on Horseback

Healing on Horseback

Three UC alumni are changing lives through unexpected therapies paired with the power of nature.

With its wide, sweeping pastures, bordered by gardens and dotted with grazing horses, the view from The Root Farm is like something out of a movie.
 
Located at the end of a long dirt path in Sauquoit, the Farm is home to 12 horses, 120 chickens, and nearly 100 acres of gardens and farmland. The setting provides a fitting backdrop for the Farm’s unique therapy programs spearheaded, in part, by a trio of Utica College alumni who know the healing potential of animals, nature, and plenty of fresh air. 
 
 

 
The Root Farm
 

Jeremy Earl ’99

Executive Director
 
For a piece of equipment, the Action Track Chair represents a lot to Jeremy Earl.
 
“It’s an off-road wheelchair,” he says, gesturing proudly toward the machine that resembles a cross between a miniature bulldozer and a character from Star Wars. “This thing can go anywhere.” 
 
The motorized chair, he explains, with its all-terrain wheels and extended battery life, allows people with limited mobility to explore nature—including mud, long grass and snow—by themselves.
 
“Someone in a traditional wheelchair has probably never had the opportunity to go into the woods alone for a few hours, and enjoy the peace and quiet,” he says. “It’s a simple thing most people take for granted. “
 
Jeremy Earl is not one of those people. A physical therapist himself, Earl is acutely aware of how physical and mental disabilities can make life feel limited. As executive director of The Root Farm, he helps design and oversee programs that make every aspect of the farm life, from riding horses to taking serene walks in nature, accessible to everyone, regardless of physical or mental ability. 
 
A part of Upstate Cerebral Palsy, The Root Farm opened in fall 2015 on the 100-acre former site of Camp Ronald McDonald, where many of the same therapies were offered. The new property includes a 17,000 square-foot riding arena, stables, therapy rooms, art studios, a chicken coop, vegetable and flower gardens, and most recently, a beehive, where honey is produced and sold at local farmers’ markets. Along with the popular equine therapy program, the Farm offers vocational and recreational programs and classes in everything from painting to horticulture to beekeeping.  
 
The Root Farm’s client base is as broad as it is diverse. Therapies cater to children and adults of all abilities, including those on the autism spectrum and with Down syndrome, people recovering from injuries, veterans dealing with post-traumatic stress, and the elderly, among many others. Accessibility to all, explains Earl, is paramount.

When clients don’t have the physical strength or fitness to ride horses, they work with therapists on horse care; hands-on tasks like brushing and feeding. When clients are anxious around the larger animals, they’re first introduced to Sunny, a gentle miniature pony who stands barely 3-feet tall.
 
It’s the Farm’s focus on adaptability, says Earl, that makes it such a meaningful place for clients. In just a year on the farm, he’s collected dozens of anecdotes from people changed by their Root Farm experience. One of his favorites: the Iraq vet who, after working with the horses for several months, no longer felt the need for anti-anxiety medications. Taming the physical “beast,” he told Earl, allowed him to quell the mental one.
 
“It’s proof that there’s something to this,” he says. “This place is more than the sum of its parts.”
 

“Every single thing here—from the design of the buildings to the therapy programs—is adaptable,” says Earl. “That’s really the whole point.”

Off-road wheelchair
 

Rodger Pape ’03

Recreation Program Coordinator
 
Rodger Pape was introduced to therapeutic riding at age 17—long before horses and therapy were commonly linked. Growing up with a family member with special needs, Pape saw the benefits firsthand. As he teen, he remembers feeling struck by how deeply clients seemed to connect with the animals.
 
“It gives me goosebumps to talk about,” says Pape. “I could see that horses were meant to work with people.”
 
The experience stayed with him, and combined with his love for the outdoors, inspired him to enroll in UC’s therapeutic recreation program, where he studied equine therapy.
 
“You see how horses connect with people on a deep level,” explains Pape. “They demand respect,” he says, and respond with unconditional love when treated properly. They are accepting and non-judgmental in ways even well intentioned people are not.
 

Indeed, studies have shown that horses are especially adept at mirroring attitudes and behaviors of humans. When a rider’s voice expresses doubt or fear when delivering a command, a horse is unlikely to respond. The lesson is powerful, says Pape.


While the physical benefits of therapeutic riding are many (improved posture, balance, and muscle tone), the emotional benefits are more poignant for Pape—and in most instances, more striking.
 
“You see people with low self-esteem quickly gain confidence,” he says. “They come in tense, nervous, and just a few hours later, they don’t want to get off the horse. Over the weeks, their personality shifts and they’re more open, more engaged.”
 
One of Pape’s favorite aspects of the job is working with students, both interns and volunteers, from Utica College. With equine therapy gaining broader mainstream acceptance, he’s noticed that more students are interested in pursuing careers in the field.
 
By nurturing young therapists’ interest in horses, he says, “it feels a little like I’m giving back.”
 


“A horse reacts to how you feel more than what you say.”

Equine therapy at the Root Farm
 

Olivia Cunningham ’15

Agriculture Assistant, Animal Care Worker
 
Barely a year after graduating from Utica College, Olivia Cunningham has achieved a career goal most adults spent their lives working toward:
 
“I wake up every morning excited to go to work,” she says, smiling.
 
Cunningham, a 2015 graduate of UC’s therapeutic recreation program, was first introduced to The Root Farm as a student. Shortly after the Farm opened its doors, Cunningham scored an internship within the equine therapy program—a natural fit with her area of interest.
 
Through classes at UC, Cunningham had learned how individuals on he autism spectrum could benefit from animal-based therapies. She’d studied how cognitive and language skills improve when a child learns how to direct the horse; how children who are non-verbal can communicate with the horse physically and, in turn, learn how to interpret a horse’s physical cues.
 
“I’ve always wanted to work with kids and animals, so I was thrilled to find a local place doing the exact type of therapy I was learning about,” she says.
 
After graduating, Cunningham joined the staff full-time as an agriculture assistant and animal care worker. In addition to equine therapy, she helps harvest produce, feed and clean the animals, and represent the Farm at local farmers’ markets. Cunningham’s favorite part of the job, though? Connecting with clients, she says, like Amanda Julian, who works with Cunningham weekly.
 
“Olivia is fantastic,” says Pat Julian, Amanda’s dad. “Amanda loves the animals at the Farm, but most weeks, she’s just as excited to see Olivia.”
 
With clients like Amanda, Cunningham assists not only with adaptive riding, but animal care—which goes far beyond manual labor. Activities like feeding the chickens, cleaning eggs, and grooming the horses can be therapeutic, too; Pat Julian has seen the results firsthand. 
 
“Amanda suffers from an anxiety disorder,” he says. “After working with Olivia and the animals day, she’s much calmer, her moods are more stable, and her attitude is more positive.”  
 
And for Cunningham, the therapeutic relationship goes both ways.

 
 

“When a client smiles, laughs or says they can’t wait to come back,” she says, “those moments make me feel proud—and lucky—to do what I do.”

Olivia Cunningham at the Root Farm

(315) 792-3006
1600 Burrstone Road | Utica, NY 13502