‘A Perfect Match’
At a therapeutic riding center in Boyds, horses are helping people with special needs discover their strengths and abilities
David Godoy hugs and thanks his favorite horse, Del Boy, at the end of each therapeutic riding session. Then Godoy wraps his arms around Del Boy’s neck in order to help himself safely dismount. Photo by April Witt.
A white MetroAccess van with a motorized lift to accommodate wheelchairs and scooters heads north past the dense subdivisions and clotted roadways of a suburbia chockablock with strip malls, big-box stores, dry cleaners and restaurants. The van and its passenger travel miles beyond all that to a spare landscape where pastures and barns outnumber subdivisions, and red-tailed hawks circle overhead.
The lone passenger in the van, David Godoy, 37, of Montgomery Village, is going to the Great and Small therapeutic riding center in Boyds, Maryland, to visit a horse. This is no ordinary meeting; it is a kind of communion.
The man and the horse each journeyed far to reach this patch of farmland where their fates, improbably, intertwined. Godoy, who has cerebral palsy, was born in Ecuador with physical deformities that made it difficult for him to stand or walk through much of his childhood. Kids in his small town mocked him. As a teen he had surgery to lengthen the muscles in his contorted legs, and he now walks with leg braces. To cover longer distances faster, Godoy rides a motorized scooter.
After his therapeutic horseback riding session, David Godoy waits for a MetroAccess van to take him home to Montgomery Village. Photo by April Witt.
The mount Godoy has come to ride is a sturdy, grayish-white Connemara pony named Del Boy. Born in Ireland, Del Boy was brought to the United States in his youth and went on to compete successfully in horse shows. Now Del Boy, who is about 24, is too old for athletic contests focused on leaping barriers to win ribbons and silver cups. Last year he began a new career as a therapy horse.
Godoy beams during a therapeutic horseback riding session with staff instructor Peggy Itrich (right) and volunteer Ellen Pearl (left). Photo by April Witt.
“It seems like Del Boy and me have known each other a long time,” Godoy says in his usual soft, formal cadence. “I can whisper something in his ear and he knows what I am saying. His personality is like my personality: outgoing and very friendly. He knows how the rider feels. If the rider feels a very sad emotion, the horse feels the same way. If I am feeling happy because we are having a very good lesson, then I am transmitting my happy emotions to Del Boy.
“We are a perfect match.” Godoy pauses to think. Then he smiles. “It is,” he says, “like together we are making heaven.”
Sarah Phelps, 55, is drinking her morning coffee and thinking, once again, that she really needs to buy curtains for her kitchen windows. That’s because Pete, one of three horses that live on her family property in Boyds, knows where to stand in the front paddock so he can peer into the kitchen and remind Phelps that he, too, would like breakfast. Phelps doesn’t need much prodding. “I love all the rituals of taking care of horses,” she says. “Twice a day—very early in the morning and late in the afternoon—it’s filling up water buckets, filling troughs, preparing the hay, doling out the hay. I love the smells and the sounds. There is nothing so transcendently peaceful for me like the sound of horses eating hay in a quiet barn. It is like having a satin blanket pulled all the way up to your nose. It is just so beautiful.”
Lawyer Sarah Phelps, who founded Great and Small two decades ago, with Pete, one of the three horses who live with her family in Boyds. Photo by April Witt.
Phelps’ desire to share that beautiful peace inspired her to found Great and Small, the nonprofit center that Godoy now visits every Wednesday afternoon. In the 1990s, Phelps, a lawyer, was doing some pro bono work for abused and neglected children in the District. She began taking some of her young clients on country outings to visit and eventually ride horses. Phelps watched children who had little control over the difficult circumstances of their daily existence experience joy and empowerment. Inspired, she began strong-arming everyone she knew to help her fund and formalize a therapeutic riding program. Great and Small officially opened in 1998. Today, Phelps has returned to practicing law full time and has no official role at the riding center she founded other than as a helpful neighbor. She and her family live right down the road.
Great and Small is located on an approximately 40-acre site that once was occupied by a dairy farm and is now owned by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. The therapeutic riding center, which leases its land and buildings from the commission, has expanded to serve clients of all ages and backgrounds.
A staff of trained instructors and managers, supported by a large roster of horse-loving volunteers, hosts about 55 clients weekly. Those who come to Great and Small face a variety of challenges, ranging from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder to Down syndrome. Great and Small is accredited by the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship, and its instructors are certified by the association. A separate category of therapeutic riding, known as hippotherapy, is led by a licensed individual, such as a psychologist or speech therapist. The volunteers who help care for Great and Small horses and assist during therapeutic riding sessions are trained on-site by center staff.
“Broadly speaking, we use equine-assisted activities to help people with special needs achieve whatever their goals are,” Center Director Rachel Neff, 29, says. “Those goals could be recreational, they could be physical, or they could be emotional.”
For people with physical disabilities or weaknesses, riding improves balance, builds muscles and helps with posture. “When you sit on a horse, your pelvis goes through the same motion as if you are walking,” Neff says. “So you are getting all the sensory input and building many of the same muscles as if you were ambulating normally.”
Emotionally, riding horses that can weigh more than 1,500 pounds helps some people build confidence, independence and a hopeful sense that, despite their limits and struggles, there are new thrills and skills to be savored.
For everyone at Great and Small—staff, volunteers and clients—just being around horses can be transformative, Neff says. These peaceful but powerful animals can be dangerous when startled. That requires people who interact closely with them to be calm, responsible, attentive and focused on experiencing the moment. “Horses give you a chance to get to know yourself,” says Neff, who grew up riding in Indiana and has a degree in agribusiness. “Horses are so good at mirroring people emotionally. They give you a really good reflection of what you are putting out into the world. You get instant feedback.
“We believe that horses make us better people.”
Yusif Azam, 4, waits for one of his two weekly riding sessions at Great and Small to begin. Yusif has been diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum. Photo by April Witt.
Yusif Azam, 4, doesn’t want to put on a warm jacket. He is a beautiful child with thick straight hair and enormous eyes. But his eyes look wary. Yusif, his parents say, has been diagnosed as being on the spectrum for autism.
“It’s going to be chilly in the arena,” his father, Dr. Mohammed Ashfaq “Ashi” Azam, a psychiatrist, says cajolingly.
“No,” the boy repeats.
No is a word that’s heard a lot, Yusif’s dad says good-naturedly.
“Do you like ice cream?” he asks his son.
Point made, Azam, 38, chuckles as he expertly wrangles his son into a warm jacket. There is much to be happy about these days. A few minutes later, when it is time to put on Yusif’s riding helmet for today’s session at Great and Small, the boy doesn’t just smile—for a fleeting moment he beams.
Over the next 30 minutes he circles the arena atop a horse named Pork Chop and chats shyly with the speech therapist who walks alongside him. The therapist makes learning feel like playing a game. She hangs a bright blue rubber ring around Pork Chop’s left ear. The horse isn’t fazed.
“Where is the blue ring?” the therapist asks Yusif. The child points at Pork Chop’s left ear.
“Use your words to tell me where the ring is,” the therapist prods gently.
“On his ear,” Yusif whispers.
“That’s right! The blue ring is on Pork Chop’s ear. Is that silly?”
Yusif nods. “Yes,” he says.
As Yusif and Pork Chop amble around the arena, the therapist holds up flash cards with colorful pictures. She asks Yusif questions designed to help him use verbs in complete sentences.
“What is this girl doing?” the speech therapist asks. “She is drinking milk,” Yusif says softly. “That’s right!” the therapist exclaims. “She is drinking milk.”
Last summer, when Yusif was 3½, he was still largely nonverbal. Azam, who is based in Silver Spring, and his ex-wife, Karen Kane, 41, of Olney, spent time and money taking their son to traditional office-based speech and occupational therapy. They didn’t see much progress. Finding recreational activities to help their son build confidence and social skills was a challenge.
“Swimming was a little bit difficult,” Azam recalls. “He goes through these phases where he becomes very frightened of water. There was a three-month period where just giving him a bath was a nightmare. We’re not sure why. Maybe it was something tactile. Maybe it was something sensory. Or maybe he was just going through a phase where he was afraid of water.”
Other activities, like karate lessons, were also a bust, his father says: “After an individual one-hour lesson or two of those, we were told, ‘Oh, we can’t help him’ or ‘He can’t do it.’ It seemed like people were just coming up with excuses for why they couldn’t work with him.”
Then Yusif’s mom, researching options, learned about Great and Small. With a mixture of curiosity and desperation, his parents signed him up for a series of therapeutic riding sessions in the fall of 2017. His first few sessions on a horse were unforgettable for everyone: He cried and shrieked incessantly. “I just kept thinking, oh that poor horse, that poor horse,” Kane recalls. But no matter how loudly Yusif shrieked, the horse held steady. “She just did her job,” Kane says. “She was as gentle as she could be.”
Yusif Azam, 4, reaches to put a hoop over a stick during a therapeutic riding session designed to help him build balance and motor skills as well as confidence. One of the center’s trained instructors, Peggy Itrich, center, looks up and offers Yusif encouragement as two volunteers help out. Photo by April Witt.
Yusif’s father recalls being “scared we were going to be told: Go away, he can’t do this.” But the center staff assured Yusif’s parents that their instructors and horses are patient and know how to interact with children who don’t adjust quickly or easily. “They gave me a sense of confidence and hope,” Azam says.
It wasn’t false hope. Yusif cried less each time they put him on a horse. Soon he stopped crying. “He was excited to come,” his father says. “He got a smile and a pep in his step. He liked it. Then he loved it.” Yusif now rides twice weekly at Great and Small. His standard therapeutic riding lessons cost $55 each; sessions with the speech therapist cost more. Yusif’s parents have trouble getting reimbursed by their insurer. Still, Yusif’s vocabulary has “expanded exponentially,” his father says. He’s speaking in sentences. His sentences are getting longer and more complex. And very often, when he speaks, he talks about horses. Yusif’s father bought him a giant toy horse to play with between visits to Great and Small. “He’s obsessed with horses,” his mother says. “Fifty times a day he says, ‘Momma, I get on the horse. I got to pull the reins.’ ”
As a man of science, Azam can’t explain precisely why his son’s life is changing for the better because of his interactions with horses and horse-loving people at Great and Small. As a father, he can see it. “Every time he comes here, there is just a little bit more confidence,” he says. “There is a functional difference. He is different. And I think he is different because of the horses.”
Last December, in gratitude, Yusif’s mother found herself doing something she couldn’t have imagined a year earlier: buying alfalfa treats to give to a horse as a Christmas present.
Margot Pettijohn, a retired federal worker who lives in Potomac, is physically strong. At 71, she racks up top-10 times and All-American honors in U.S. Masters Swimming competitions. On this blustery winter day, however, the wiry athlete moves slowly and delicately, as if she were handling bone china in a windstorm.
Pettijohn and two other female volunteers are in an outdoor paddock at Great and Small, surrounding a 20-year-old thoroughbred named Okie Dokie. The women rest their open hands lightly on the horse’s ears, face, belly, flanks and rump. They are performing something they call equine craniosacral therapy or massage. It looks to the uninitiated bystander as if they are performing a kind of religious ceremony, a healing laying on of hands. As the women gently touch the horse, he visibly relaxes. Okie Dokie exhales deeply. His lower lip droops. He begins to lick and chew. His eyelids flutter as if he might fall into a trance.
Twenty feet away, Del Boy watches and awaits his turn. Every few minutes, he sidles silently a few feet closer to the trio of women as if to remind them: me next.
Working as a therapy horse can be stressful. Not every horse has the necessary temperament. A successful therapy horse has to be what Neff, the center director, calls “bomb-proof”: calm, steady and quiet, no matter what happens. As of this past winter, Great and Small had seven official therapy horses that were either leased monthly from their private owners or had been donated to the center. Two additional horses were undergoing 90-day trials to see if they had what it takes to succeed. Given the stress of the job, Neff limits each Great and Small horse to no more than eight lessons weekly.
Center Director Rachel Neff smiles at her personal horse, Stella, 14. Stella is smart, but has back problems and personality quirks that make her unsuitable as a therapy horse. “She’s a little bit like a cat,” Neff says. “The relationship is on her terms. She likes me, especially if I have something for her to eat. But she’s also quite happily independent.” Photo by April Witt.
Horses are prey animals that evolved to evade predators by racing away. In therapy-riding sessions, however, horses are boxed in, surrounded by an instructor and a crew of volunteers. During lessons, a designated leader stands to one side of the horse’s head or neck and typically holds a lead line clipped to its bridle. Other volunteers, known as side-walkers, position themselves on the right and left of the horse’s barrel-shaped belly to help riders maintain proper posture and balance. They also help the rider understand and respond to the instructor’s directions. Not long ago, Neff rejected a potential therapy horse that made aggressive movements—pinning his ears back and swinging his head side to side—whenever side-walkers stepped into what he considered his personal space.
“For a lot of horses, that feels really claustrophobic,” Neff says. “Naturally, horses are disinclined to be boxed in on all sides and not have a method of escape. That’s a lot to ask of an animal whose natural reaction should be to run first and ask questions later. The miracle of domestication is that there are many horses who are totally OK with that. They just trust the people around them.”
Some horses at Great and Small are stepping down from physically demanding careers as competitive athletes. Racehorses have relatively brief careers. The thoroughbreds that compete in the Kentucky Derby, for example, are 3-year-olds. Yet horses can compete well into their teens in equestrian eventing, a three-day triathlon of sorts in which competitors are judged on a variety of skills that can take years of training to perform expertly. At Great and Small, the youngest horse is 10, Neff says; the center’s longest-serving horse died in March at age 33.
Angus, a therapy horse at Great and Small, wraps himself around his owner, Katy Hansen, as he tries to get at the peppermint she holds in her hand. Hansen is the volunteer manager at Great and Small. Photo by April Witt.
Great and Small Volunteer Manager Katy Hansen, of Poolesville, began leasing her Kentucky-born thoroughbred, Angus, to the center last year. Angus was a comfort to Hansen long before he became an official therapy horse, she says. Hansen, now 47, was pregnant when she bought Angus many years ago, and she miscarried soon after. Without Angus to tend to, “I would have run off the rails of my life completely,” she says in an email. “How many overly-tight neck hugs and tears he endured during that first year I don’t know.” Hansen came to understand and cherish Angus’ “funny way of turning his nose to nudge my foot if he didn’t understand something” and “his impatient head butts if I was affectionate for too long.”
She grew to relish galloping through fields atop Angus in equestrian eventing competitions that included daring leaps over fixed barriers. “To ride the powerful shift of balance, bone and muscle stretching forward, gathering, shooting upward in a massive push, a moment of suspension, over one fence to land, rebalance and explode forward to another is the event rider’s drug,” she recalls.
The paddocks of Great and Small are especially peaceful late in the day when most of the riders have gone home. Photo by April Witt.
The glee Hansen felt competing with Angus, she says, “doesn’t match the real joy I feel watching him transition into his new role as therapy horse. There is a deep sense of satisfaction hearing others discuss their affection for him, because it confirms all that I know about who he is and what a gift he’s been to me. …Angus doesn’t really belong to me. He belongs to everyone whose life he touches, moves and heals.”
The indoor arena at Great and Small is dimly lit, quiet except for the rhythmic cooing of pigeons in the rafters. It’s a February afternoon, and both David Godoy and Del Boy are preparing for their weekly session. In one corner adjacent to the oval arena, Godoy is warming up. He uses his arms to pull himself on top of a horizontal vaulting barrel on a stand.
The barrel is covered in carpet and has looped handles to help him steady himself. It looks like a piece of homemade gymnastics equipment. Godoy alternately straddles the barrel and balances on top of it. For more than 20 minutes he works alone through a series of exercises designed to stretch the muscles of his legs and improve his balance.
Godoy pushes himself like a champion athlete to go further, be stronger. Godoy is a champion. He competes in the Special Olympics in events including cycling and swimming. Although he is too polite to mention his accomplishments, he has won more than 300 medals in the Special Olympics. Godoy doesn’t like bragging. Neither does he like recalling less happy times in his life. He could not walk until he was 7 years old. Even then, because of his physical disabilities, he could only walk on tiptoe. When he was a young teen, his parents, seeking more opportunities for him, moved the family to the United States. Until they could afford to buy their own home in Montgomery Village, the family lived with relatives in Silver Spring. Godoy graduated from a special education program at John F. Kennedy High School in Silver Spring. Doctors at Johns Hopkins performed the surgery that allowed Godoy to walk with his heels as well as his toes touching the ground, increasing his stability.
As Godoy prepares to ride, Del Boy is nearby in a stall adjoining the dirt-floor arena. A volunteer, Ellen Pearl, 77, who lives in Gaithersburg, is cleaning, brushing and saddling the horse—preparing him to join Godoy in the arena. Pearl, a former stockbroker, has been riding and loving horses since she was a small girl at summer camp. She’s ridden horses with fox hunters in Maryland and cowboys in Wyoming. She’s galloped down a beach in Ireland. Pearl can still recall the name and personality quirks of every horse she ever rode. Neither her love of horses nor her confident knack for interacting with them has dimmed with the decades. Pearl identifies with Del Boy. They are filly and colt no more. Both have come to Great and Small to walk its peaceful paddocks, and to be useful.
When Pearl leads Del Boy into the arena, the Connemara pony looks pristine. As Del Boy prances past the open double doors of the dim arena building he is bathed in sunlight. His white, perfectly-trimmed tail—fleetingly backlit—glows.
Godoy’s legs don’t have enough strength and range of motion for him to safely step up into one stirrup and hoist himself into the saddle. So he stands waiting for Del Boy on one of two raised mounting platforms that are built out of plywood and spaced just a few feet apart. Pearl leads Del Boy to stand, perfectly still, between the two platforms. Godoy’s therapeutic riding instructor helps him ease into the saddle as a second helper, standing nearby on the other platform, rests her hand on Godoy’s back to steady him. Godoy takes the reins.
“Walk on, Del Boy,” he says.
Riders direct trained horses through a combination of voice commands, moving the reins in their hands—left or right, backward or forward—and using their legs to apply pressure to the sides of their mount. Press your left leg into a horse’s left side and the animal knows to turn right. Press your right leg into a horse’s right side and it knows to go left. Apply pressure to the horse with both legs at once and the horse knows to go forward or go faster.
After eight years of riding at Great and Small, Godoy knows exactly what to do. But his physical limitations sometimes prevent him from giving his mount perfectly clear physical directions. Del Boy is smart and intuitive. He has come to know Godoy’s every shift in the saddle and movement of the reins the way an expert ballroom dancer reads the movements of their regular partner.
“Del Boy is wonderful at this job,” Neff says. “He is both extremely tolerant and at the same time expert at judging when the rider is being purposeful with their body. He will respond to someone who is trying to give the right cues. He does a really good job of deciding whether the rider’s input was intentional.”
The riding instructor tells Pearl to unclip the lead from Del Boy’s bridle. For now, at least, Godoy and Del Boy trot freely around the arena; Pearl jogs alongside them just in case she is needed. But the man from Ecuador and horse from Ireland find their own special rhythm without mishap. As they trot past the open doors to the arena, wide shafts of sunlight catch them in beautiful motion.
After his lesson, Godoy sits in the lounge at Great and Small waiting for his ride home. He has his evening carefully planned. He will rest, to recover from the exertion of his riding lesson. He will help his mother prepare the family dinner. Then Godoy, who plays the clarinet, flute and saxophone, will spend the evening at Montgomery College practicing to perform in a spring band concert. In order to control the weight of his saxophone, he plays while sitting in a wheelchair.
Godoy, wearing a protective riding helmet, stands in the sunny, comfortably well-worn lounge of Great and Small. Photo by April Witt.
Godoy enjoys talking about the many opportunities in his life for which he is grateful. He is grateful that he can volunteer at a nursing home where he feels useful. He is grateful for Great and Small, where he has come to believe not just in himself and Del Boy, but in new possibilities. He’s working on a speech he has agreed to give in June at a Special Olympics event styled after the TED Talks. He has been asked to speak about a topic on which he is an expert: transformation.
“In the beginning [of riding], I was being scared,” he says. “I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know what would happen to my legs. I didn’t know what would happen with my arms. But the program is happening in a positive way in my life so I can be more independent.”
Godoy lists his new life goals: “So I am looking forward to getting my own apartment, being able to buy groceries by myself, catching the Metro train all completely by myself, being able to catch the bus by myself, being able to have a job—a paid position.
“Those goals are going to become a reality,” he says, “because I have learned to have faith in myself and to know that there are no real obstacles in life. No matter what disability you have, you can overcome obstacles. Everything can be possible.”
Del Boy is in a paddock munching hay by the time the MetroAccess van turns into a small parking area next to the arena. Godoy watches as the driver opens the side door and lowers the ramp for him. He starts the motor on his scooter and rides forward.
April Witt (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a former Washington Post writer.