Equine group empowers cancer patients Print E-mail

Bobby McGee never quite embraced the idea of zipping around a dirt oval. A handsome 7-year old thoroughbred, he is quiet and kind. These days he displays his athletic talent in hunter and dressage events.

Detour is a descended from the wild ponies on Assateague Island in southern Maryland. A well-mannered 10-year-old, the Chincoteague pony is accustomed to having medium-sized adults and children of all ages climbing aboard.

Both horses reside at Warwick Hill Stables located in Elverson on 22 acres of rolling countryside. The setting is tranquil and appropriate for the horses’ new mission in life.

They are the four-legged partners of Horse Power for Life that blends the region’s natural beauty with the natural healing power of horses in a unique horsemanship program that empowers cancer patients. A 16-week certified program, it provides cancer patients, survivors and their families the chance to focus on a fun activity and take their minds off a disease they live with 24/7. The non-profit program is totally free of charge.

Sandy Piliero discovered Horse Power for Life from a neighbor who picked up the group’s brochure at the Ludwig’s Horse Show. Diagnosed with breast cancer last year, the Malvern resident is their first participant. She is currently in her sixth week of lessons.

"When the illness struck I was feeling very down,” Piliero related. “Being around a horse started out as a diversion then blossomed into a passion. It gave me something to sink my teeth into and allowed me to look at life in a new way. After I finish, I will keep on riding.”

Shiree Sansone is the president and co-founder. Like many of us, she was touched by cancer.

“My aunt passed away three months after being diagnosed with brain cancer,” said Sansone, of Chester Springs. “We wanted a special experience involving horses, something to take the students away from all the physical and emotional issues.”

An accomplished equestrian who rides Bobby McGee in hunter events, Sansone launched Horse Power for Life last summer. She teamed up with Barbara Rosoff who has worked with sport horses since 1981 and a therapeutic riding instructor for a dozen years.

“Horses are a gift and my greatest passion,” said Rosoff, who lives in Chester Springs. “If I can transmit a spark of what I feel to someone going through this illness, I would consider my job well done.”

The program is supported through individual and corporate donations. It will stage its first major fund-raiser at the Farmhouse at The People’s Light & Theatre in Malvern on April 19.

Rosoff teaches students from the ground up. They learn all aspects of horse care from how to handle a bridle and basic grooming to how to lead a horse and how to back him up. Typically, during the fourth lesson they mount a horse. Students receive certificates for each level of horsemanship they achieve.

Detour is on loan from Denise O’Connor, owner of Banbury Cross in Glenmoore. Rosoff’s weekly 90-minute lessons are customized for each student depending on their level of comfort, horse knowledge, and physical abilities. Those who choose not to ride can work with the horses on plenty of ground exercises.

“When the students learn to live in the moment they connect with the horses,” relates Rosoff. “The horses are very friendly and interactive. But when they nudge you, they’re saying, yo, pay attention to what we’re doing.”

Nine-year old Anna Lisa and her mother Liz have enrolled in the program as has a 7-year old boy from Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia.

At Kathy Gross’ Warwick Hill the children will spend time grooming, cleaning hooves, learning to back-up and eventually trotting Detour around the outdoor ring.

Even as treatments and the emotional weight of cancer slows them down, the kids will bond with the Chincoteague pony who surely will bring a smile to their faces. The program is also designed to be an emotional therapeutic experience for their families.

Recent studies have found that horses are uniquely sensitive, providing a nonverbal vehicle for people to access their emotions, which can improve responsiveness to cancer treatment and extend survivorship.

“I look forward to my lesson every Wednesday,” Piliero said. “As the first student I’ve been involved in promoting the program so that it can succeed.”

As for Detour and Bobby McGee, they take it all in stride and generously welcome beginners bouncing on their backs.


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