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Golden Dreams Therapeutic Riding connects horses and passion in Middleburg

While volunteer Kim Gibbons holds the reins, Paul Goodwin, 6, of Falls Church, says goodbye to Princess at Golden Dreams Therapeutic Riding Center in Middleburg. —Times-Mirror Staff Photo/Rick Wasser
Inside a fenced pen on a bright Saturday in Middleburg, a high school senior and an 11-year-old boy trotted around on two horses. The girl, who had been riding for just three weeks, successfully dismounted from the horse.

“That was perfect,” one of the instructors crowed. The girl beamed.

“She's taken to this immediately,” said Gail Zehner, watching her daughter. “She's got a smile on her face the whole time.”

And while Zehner's daughter Clare smiled, walking the horse back to its stable, Zehner said that smile was rare: Clare's crippling anxiety had kept her out of school since November.

For the Zehners and other families coming to Golden Dreams Therapeutic Riding, the hour-long weekly lessons are more than just horsemanship.

They're also about hope.

A sense of purpose
Therapeutic riding is not a new discovery. Ancient Greeks used to use horse riding as therapy for incurable illnesses, and in the 17th century, riding was used for things like gout and neurological disorders. Most credit Lis Hartel, the 1952 and 1956 Olympic silver medalist in dressage despite paralysis from polio, as the mother of modern therapeutic riding.

After her Olympic accomplishments, Hartel founded Europe's first therapeutic riding center; by 1960, the American Medical Association deemed therapeutic riding a valuable medical tool.

But for founder Lisa Vella lantosca therapeutic horse riding was somewhat out of her expertise.

Vella lantosca's horse experience stemmed from her father, Armand James Vella III, who loved all things horses, particularly thoroughbred racing. Vella would ultimately help establish Golden Dreams with his daughter, offering financial and business support for the nonprofit.

What Vella lantosca did know was children and charity, working as a court appointed represented for abused and neglected children. Professionally, she helped orchestrate fundraising for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Fund as the event co-chair in New York City, raising more than $40 million.

It was Vella lantosca's work with the JDRF that helped motivate her to start Golden Dreams.

“I have fundraised my entire life,” Vella lantosca explained. “I just thought there were ways of helping people that didn't have to be as costly. There's nothing quite like being with a warm-blooded animal.”

When Vella lantosca and her then husband acquired the 12 acre property in Middleburg in 2006, there were no horse facilities. But with aspirations of a therapeutic riding facility, the couple spent more than a year developing the land to be suitable for equines. In 2008, Golden Dreams became a registered nonprofit for its work in therapeutic riding.

For $55, students receive a lesson that can include tacking and grooming the horse and usually involves 40 minutes in the saddle. Because lesson fees don't cover operating costs, Golden Dreams relies on donations to help keep the farm operational.

“It's really an amazing community,” Vella lantosca said.

All of the horses at Golden Dreams are donated horses, trained and selected specifically for their ability to work with people of different physical and mental abilities. In addition to their docility, the horses are all in their “second-career,” coming from previous jobs as competitive horses and racers. Many of the animals are in their 20s and 30s, relatively old for a horse, which only has a life-expectancy into the 30s.

Three instructors, all trained via Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International methods, lead the lessons, while a cadre of volunteers assist and help maintain the facility. Golden Dreams was so named for Vella lantosca's affinity for Golden Retrievers, and two happy dogs patrol the property, eagerly accepting fawning affection from riders and families.

A judgment-free zone
Because equine therapy offers both psychological and physical benefits, the riders at Golden Dreams are noticeably diverse.

Some students suffer from emotional or mental disorders, other neurological disorders, like autism, and others have physical disabilities. Most riders are between 4 and 18 years old, though there are some adult riders, including some veterans from the Air Warrior Courage Foundation.

The physical benefits include improved balance and coordination, increased muscle strength and control, improved posture and better motor skills. Psychologically, riding can improve mood, confidence, ability to follow directions and focus and self-discipline.

Some of the benefit, Vellas lantosca said, is just being outside in fresh air.

For many of the students, it's a chance to feel normal.

“I think at other places, she'd feel judged,” Gale Zehner said of her daughter's experience. “I think here, where everyone has challenges, it's non-threatening.”
Clare admitted she was nervous at first, but said she quickly fell into a routine.

“As soon as I got on, I got a lot of praise and encouragement, and now I look forward to it,” she explained. “I remember being nervous at first but once you get into a rhythm, it's really nice.”

Golden Dream's contingent of regular riders would seem to verify that. Bridget Goodwin drives all the way from Falls Church to take her sons Paul and Christopher to riding. Ryan, a sixth-grader with high-functioning autism, has been attending Golden Dreams since the fall and hopes to eventually be able to ride solo.

As Saturday's lesson concluded, the group of riders and instructors walked the burly beasts back to the barn, chatting casually, a welcome site to parents as they watched. And though the horses got put away, the students continued talking to the car, evidence the equine lessons continue well past the paddock.

All photos by Rick Wasser


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