Photo caption: SEEING EYE TO EYE: Rasin and Walnut, two miniature donkeys at SeaPony Farm, angle for the same patch of grass in their pasture Tuesday morning. Catie Conti's SeaPony Farm caters to young riders with special needs who benifit from riding therapy.
Photo credit: Nicole Harnishfeger
By Mary Lancaster Independent Writer
Along the lush trails at SeaPony Farm shad bushes are beginning to bloom and the loudest sounds are the songs of birds. At a crest within the farm’s rolling 30 acres of fields and paddocks, small donkeys Raisin and Walnut meander in a pasture never far from their horse friends Boo, a tall and graceful white Arabian steed, and Icelandic horses Titill, Guster, Thremill and Balder.
On the far side of the property, alpacas Chi Chi and Gracey graze contentedly, lifting their heads on long necks as their natural curiosity is piqued by passersby who stop to watch them. It is a peaceful place tucked away off Crooked Lane where these nine handsome, sweet animals and their owner Catherine Conte make magical things happen.
SeaPony Farm is a therapeutic equestrian center, a non-profit corporation Conte founded in 2005 that is a member of the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association, of which Conte is a registered therapeutic riding instructor. The land is one of Nantucket’s oldest recorded farms, owned first by Benjamin Gardner, then by William H. H. Smith and in the 1930s by James Thompson.
Conte, a licensed attorney, had her own practice for 20 years in Worcester, Mass. where she specialized in family law with a focus on child abuse and juvenile cases. Her mother was a double amputee who lost both legs above the knee.
"I’ve wanted to do something like this for a long time and I’ve always had horses," explained Conte. "In my practice I would bring my child clients to the house and have them interact with the horses - touch them, pet them. It was miraculous how they would open up and talk to me about their lives. That’s when I got the bug. I love it. The kids bring me so much joy, and it’s a natural thing for me to do."
Conte’s life partner Billy Cassidy, one of the farm’s directors and its property manager, was living here when Conte’s mother died in 2001. Conte sold her mainland property and moved to the island with her two horses in 2003. After considering many parcels, the pair decided that the land between Madaket Road and Crooked Lane, formerly the Egan property, was the perfect spot to try out her dream.
SeaPony Farm started as a 2006 pilot program with severely handicapped adults and children in the Tulgywood Camp. Some of them were wheelchair-bound or restricted to using crutches, but with Conte’s nurturing and knowledgeable approach they were able to ride her horses and found a deep sense of pleasure and accomplishment in their experiences.
Encouraged by that success, Conte began researching breeds and adding more animals, choosing the Icelandic horses for their sturdiness, low stature and gaits that promote physical therapy.
"They all have a different job depending on the person," Conte said of her horses. "We match our participants with the horses depending on the disability, the movement of the horse and the horse’s personality."
Now, the farm is host to the Tulgywood Camp as well as the Adams Camp, affiliated with the island’s S.T.A.R. camp for which Conte offers three-day riding programs geared to kids two to six and seven to 13 and their siblings. Nantucket’s Kennedy-Donovan Center for mentally challenged adults visits SeaPony once a week. The farm’s yearround participants average between 25 to 30 and there are many summer visitors. Individuals and groups are welcome.
Potential participants include children or adults with a variety of physical or emotional difficulties, such as head injury clients, those with autism or Down’s syndrome and other such impairments, along with children experiencing developmental disorders and learning disabilities. The program also benefits at-risk youth.
Those wanting to engage in equine-assisted activities are assessed and screened by Conte and the individual’s medical team to determine eligibilty. It is vital that the activities are deemed safe and appropriate for each participant, determinded in part by a risk/benefit analysis that aids in Conte’s judgment of which horse is best suited for the applicant, which riding equipment to use and how many staff will be needed for the chosen activities. She utilizes approximately four assistants per rider, including herself, horse leaders who guide the animals along trails and “side-walkers” who ensure the rider is safely positioned and protected from slipping, for example.
Conte explained that for those with physical disabilities, horses mimic the human walk, which loosens the person’s body, strengthens them and establishes a bond with their animal. Autistic children may be anxious, and the horse’s rhythmic movement settles them and assists them in focusing, said Conte. Participants with emotional issues respond well to the friendships they make with the animals. The at-risk group, who so far are all teen volunteer helpers on the farm, find renewed wellbeing and confidence working with the animals and receive an appreciation for their capabilities. Some participants who are fearful overcome the impediment through petting and touching an animal in its stall and learning that it will not harm them.
"It’s a beautiful thing," said Conte, explaining that the alpacas and donkeys are for non-riding sessions. "You don’t need to ride to have the therapy. The donkeys are a hoot, and the alpacas are timid yet curious and teach the kids to be quiet and gentle."
"The horses are mystical. They do such a wonderful service for us, so we need to take care of them," said Conte, stressing that they all have been raised by her own special technique and never struck to condition their behavior. They, like the humans involved with SeaPony Farm, are treated with sincere affection and dignity. "They are giving us a gift letting us use them to help with the program. They are very kind. They are actually the therapists here."
SeaPony Farm offers scholarships, made possible through donations to the non-profit corporation. "My goal here is for every participant to come for free," Conte said of her greatest wish.
Besides Conte’s position, her father Donald Conte serves as SeaPony Farm’s treasurer. Billy Cassidy, and island native, is a director and property manager. The other directors act as consultants and are Kara Reagon, a doctoral candidate at Utah State University’s Department of Special Education; Teresa Coulter, a physical therapist and registered NARHA instructor and Erin Towler, a registered and pediatric nurse working in Boston’s Children’s Hopsital’s adult and adolescent clinic.
SeaPony Farm is open by appointment Tuesdays through Saturdays, spring through fall with some special winter activities For more information and to view photos of the farm’s animals go to seaponyfarm.com.
© copyright 2011 Nantucket Therapeutic Equestrian Center, Inc.
site design s.w.artz, inc.