For Elisa Peskin, Back in the Saddle (BITS) is the realization of a lifelong goal, bringing individuals – especially those with special needs – together with horses and other farm animals. In this unique program, animals facilitate the learning, helping participants improve their social, emotional and physical well being – in a fun and supportive environment.
Since launching the program in 2016, she’s watched as children with special needs and behavior challenges overcome obstacles, achieve goals and form meaningful relationships with their animals. “They help develop confidence, self-esteem and leadership skills, and teach patience and compassion,” she explains. “But perhaps most importantly, the animals help bring out love and show us how to build relationships.”
At BITS, it’s not just a fun pony ride. Learning begins the moment an individual sets foot on the farm, starting with how to properly greet a horse. “Through a range of activities, we work on developing relationships not just with their horse, but also the other volunteers, peers and caregivers present,” Elisa notes. Hands-on activities, from catching their horse to opening a gate latch, allow participants to practice fine and large motor skills. Other life skills, like cooperation, self-confidence and responsibility, are also woven into each session.
She attributes much of the program’s success to her animals’ nonjudgmental nature. “Animals don’t care if a kid’s in a wheelchair or has limited verbal skills,” she adds. “It’s truly humbling to watch a non-verbal child form a bond with an animal; I get goosebumps every time.”
In the two years since its inception, Back in the Saddle has grown to include a mobile outreach effort, which brings Elisa’s animals into the community. “When we started, we knew there would be individuals who couldn’t come to our facility,” she explains. Through her Farm Friends Therapy Animals program, Elisa brings roosters, ducks, goats, pigs, chinchillas, miniature horses and donkeys to libraries, school classrooms, group homes, assisted living facilities and more. In these settings, participants practice social skills, while benefiting from emotional and physical interactions with animals.
Whether on the farm, or as part of the mobile outreach, the goal is the same: creating a positive impact on individual’s lives. “I often think of it as “non-therapy” therapy,” Elisa explains, “because while the kids are focused on the animals, they accomplish so much more.”