Sarah was adopted from an orphanage in Ukraine when she was five. At just 19 pounds, she had been kept in a bed all her life. Her mom, Yvonne, says she could barely sit up.
Yvonne and her husband, Jon, began helping Sarah in all the ways they could, including physical therapy, to help her learn to walk.
While Sarah has special needs, including blindness and other conditions, doctors could find no reason physically why she wouldn’t be able to walk.
“There’s no muscular or neurological reason she can’t walk,” Yvonne says. “It’s just that she’s missing all those milestones and all those years of development, and her brain just doesn’t have ability to put it together.”
Earlier this year, Yvonne decided to take a chance on something different. It’s called hippotherapy, and it uses the movements of a horse to help people like Sarah. Yvonne had heard about a place called Emerald M Therapeutic Riding Center, so she decided to try it out.
“I did this just for the heck of it,” says Yvonne. “I didn’t really expect it to work.”
But, it has.
“It’s amazing,” says Yvonne. “We can walk with her now, just by holding one hand. Before, most of the time we just carried her — even around the house — because it was just easier.”
Yvonne and Jon have four other children. Of their five kids, three have some sort of disability, and their son, Sam, also benefits from hippotherapy at Emerald M. Of all the therapies her kids have experienced, says Yvonne, “Nothing has ever been as dramatic the change we’ve seen in Sarah.”
(To purchase tickets to its Grand Opening Fundraiser on Saturday, October 20, 5:30 p.m.-10 p.m., visit EmeraldMTherapeuticRidingCenter.org.)
Emerald M Therapeutic Riding Center was founded by Lisa Michelangelo, a former New Tampa resident who is a physical therapist. For about eight years, she managed the physical therapy department at the Fit 4 Life Personal Training & Physical Therapy studio in Tampa Palms.
She and her family always loved horses, so in 2013 – when Lisa’s daughters were 13 and 10 – they moved out to Dade City, where they could have a larger property and be able to live with their horses, rather than boarding them elsewhere.
At that time, it occurred to Lisa that she had the opportunity to combine her love of horses with her professional career as a physical therapist.
Lisa did extensive continuing education through the American Hippotherapy Association to be able to provide this unique therapy.
“Through the use of a horse and movement, we target deficiencies and work on areas such as core strength, balance and walking,” explains Lisa. “The horse replicates human walking. I can put someone on the back of the horse, and they feel like they’re walking on air. Once we can recreate the walking pattern on the horse, we can also recreate it on the ground.”
In 2014, Lisa launched Emerald M Therapeutic Riding Center on her property in Dade City.
“The name, Emerald M, comes from the emerald gem stone,” Lisa explains. “The emerald stands for hope, renewal and growth, and that’s what we provide to the people we serve. We provide hope and a renewed sense of self, and then they continue to grow.” She says the “M” is for her last name.
Lisa explains that participants in her program have a wide variety of conditions that bring them to her.
“We have kids and adults who come to us with autism, processing disorders, emotional disorders, cerebral palsy, paralysis and brain tumors,” she explains, “It’s a whole plethora of diagnoses.”
She explains that sometimes a child or adult can complete hippotherapy, because they have successfully overcome the condition that caused them to need the therapy. At that point, they graduate to therapeutic riding, which is where they learn horsemanship skills and how to ride.
In addition, Emerald M offers beginner riding lessons for siblings of program participants, too.
“We know it affects the whole family,” Lisa says, speaking of the conditions that cause people to come to her riding center for therapy. “Often, the siblings of the children with special needs are watching their brother or sister ride, and they want to ride, too.”
Growth… And Tragedy
A couple of years ago, Emerald M became a nonprofit organization, with Lisa as its founder. “Since then, the program has exploded,” Lisa says, explaining that word of mouth and practitioner support continues to draw new people into the program.
She says the new property is only 5 miles from the former one, and her participants coming from places such as Wesley Chapel and New Tampa don’t mind the drive. Sarah’s mom, Yvonne, who drives from Zephyrhills, says the hour-long drive is absolutely worth it, for the amazing results they are seeing in Sarah.
“We had to make that move to accommodate the growth,” says Lisa. “The new property is much more suited for the kind of work that we do.”
In the midst of moving, the staff and volunteers at Emerald M experienced a tragedy. When a storm blew through the area, three of the riding center’s horses were killed by a lightning strike.
“It was tragic,” said Lisa, who adds that says she has had support from the organization’s board of directors and volunteers, and throughout the community, as supporters set up a GoFundMe page to raise money to help with the cost of new horses.
“They will never be replaced,” says Lisa. “However, we have come through and have brought in some new furry friends. The new horses help to carry the load.”To celebrate the opening of the new location and to continue to raise funds for the organization’s mission, Emerald M is hosting a grand opening fundraising dinner on Saturday, October 20, from 5:30 p.m.-10 p.m.
Helping Veterans, Too
About a year ago, Lisa began partnering with an organization called Veterans Alternative to help U.S. Military combat veterans and their spouses. Veterans Alternative helps veterans from all over the country, all branches of the military, and all eras of war, by providing a weeklong retreat to work through PTSD and other issues.
Lisa facilitates the part of the program called P.E.A.C.E., or “Powerful Equine Assisted Counseling Experience.” She says she comes alongside mental health providers who join these combat veterans and their spouses for a day of therapy with the horses at Emerald M.
Each horse has a story — what jobs they’ve done, or what hurdles they’ve faced — which are relayed by mental health counselors. And in turn, the veterans relate their own personal stories to the stories of the horses they are working with. Lisa says they begin to talk about things that might be challenging to them.
“It’s incredible,” she says.
Over the past year, 135 combat veterans have completed the program.
“We even have combat veterans who have found so much reward in this program, that now they’re out here volunteering, giving back by helping their brothers and sisters in the military,” says Lisa.
One such veteran is Franco Caro, a former U.S. Marine who served from 2001-05, and who deployed to Iraq in 2003. After leaving the military, he struggled with finding a sense of purpose.
“I tried to take my life nine times between 2005 and 2010,” he says. “To go from working nonstop in the military to being told you can’t do that anymore, you feel lost.”
Working with mental health providers and taking medications didn’t keep him from attempting suicide.
But, Franco’s last suicide attempt was in 2010, before he found something to give him the sense of accomplishment he was looking for.
Franco says he first encountered horses and the idea of therapy through riding and caring for them at a place called Rocking Horse Farm in New Port Richey. Just this summer, he was introduced to Emerald M Therapeutic Riding Center, and he now volunteers there two or three times a week.
“I don’t realize how far I’ve come until I start thinking back,” Franco says. “When I go there, instead of overanalyzing myself, it allows my brain an escape to focus on something else.”
He explains that his role is to be sure the horse he cares for, named Anna, is ready to work with the hippotherapy participants. He grooms Anna, rides her to be sure she’s properly exercised, gets her tacked up, and makes sure she’s comfortable.
“I look over my horse from nose to tail, make sure she’s walking correctly, standing correctly, doesn’t have any wounds or discomfort,” Franco says. “She can’t tell me, so I form a strong bond with her. It puts me at ease, too, and Lisa’s getting a volunteer who knows horsemanship and what to do.”
Those volunteers, Lisa says, are essential. “I couldn’t do it without them,” she says.
Franco also volunteers with the P.E.A.C.E. program, where he can tell his story to fellow veterans and share how equine therapy has helped him. “They are very small, very personal groups, and we are there connecting with the veterans one-on-one,” Franco says.
Whether it’s working with veterans or kids with special needs, Lisa says she has been a part of incredible changes at Emerald M.
“Miracles happen out here,” Lisa says. “A lot of times, it’s unexplainable. It truly is the horses. I facilitate it, but the animals do have a sense that we can’t explain. The changes that we see out here are monumental for both families and individuals.”
For more information about Emerald M Riding Center, to donate to its GoFundMe campaign, or to purchase tickets to its Grand Opening Fundraiser on Saturday, October 20,5:30 p.m.-10 p.m., visit EmeraldMTherapeuticRidingCenter.org.