NYU Alumni 

alumni profile

The Horse Healer

dana spett / wsuc ’88

by Jo Kadlecek

It began with a horse named Mat, four kids, and a rented barn stall in Paramus, New Jersey. Mat had been a show horse when an injury sidelined him. The kids included a teenage girl with autism, a younger boy with a seizure disorder, another boy with autism, and a 4-year-old girl named Sydney who’d shown signs of sensory integration dysfunction.
Social worker Dana Spett (pictured above with a young patient) set up shop on a farm (below) in Mahwah, New Jersey, after she realized riding horses could have a powerful therapeutic effect for children and adults with disabilities.

As a social worker for special-needs children in Bergen County, New Jersey, and a lifelong equestrian, Dana Spett wondered whether riding Mat might offer an alternative sort of therapy to her patients. Her curiosity was personal as well: Sydney is Spett’s middle child.

It didn’t take long to determine whether the venture was a success. “The benefit was immediate,” Spett says. “Riding Mat did great things for [the children’s] bodies and their emotions. It grounded Sydney so that she was able to process better.” Indeed, research shows that participants gain physical and mental alertness by riding. When an individual sits on the animal correctly, the movement of the horse replicates a human’s gait, resulting in core muscle development, as well as improved motor and balance control. Drawing on this and further research, Spett founded Pony Power Therapies in 2000.

The next step was to find a facility that offered guests an experience that went beyond just riding. So when Spett and her husband found a working three-and-a-half-acre farm in the Ramapo Mountains of Mahwah, New Jersey, the couple sold everything to buy it. They moved in 2003, and by 2005, Pony Power Therapies became a fully operating nonprofit. Today, it’s grown to 22 horses and ponies (all of which are donated and screened for quality of movement and temperament), 13 employees, and 120 volunteers—including students from NYU and area high schools. The facility became a Professional Association of TherapeuticHorsemanship International Premier Accredited Center in 2012, and currently works with corporate event partners such as Goldman Sachs, KPMG, and many local businesses.

About 150 participants, ages 2 to 79, from the tristate region now ride there regularly. The programs are tailored according to the participant’s needs, whether teens with addictions, foster children, seniors with Alzheimer’s, injured veterans, or students with special disabilities. “Not long ago we had a group where each child was in a wheelchair,” Spett says. “To see their joy when they got on a horse, well, it’s a privilege to do this work.”

This work, however, wasn’t exactly what Spett had in mind while an undergraduate studying Russian and political science at NYU in the mid-1980s. In between classes, she founded NYU’s first equestrian team and went on to compete internationally. After graduation, Spett worked for the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, helping refugees and political asylees. She felt drawn to social work and completed an MSW at Yeshiva University prior to getting Pony Power off the ground.

The enterprise has always been a family affair for the Spetts, who named the facility Three Sisters Farms, after their three daughters who grew up on the property. The oldest, Emma, is now a second-year student studying global human rights in NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study. The youngest, Zoe, is a high school sophomore who volunteers at Pony Power. And Sydney? She graduated from high school as a junior to study premed and still rides every day, even working as a riding instructor in the program.

“Her strengths were realized here,” Spett explains. “Her therapy was being in the barn.”

For more information on Pony Power Therapies, visit ponypowernj.org.

Photos Courtesy Pony Power Therapies