MILFORD, PA — Birthday parties are something many children take for granted. With their cute invitations, games, cakes and goodie bags, birthdays dot the childhood landscape and provide …
MILFORD, PA — Birthday parties are something many children take for granted. With their cute invitations, games, cakes and goodie bags, birthdays dot the childhood landscape and provide frequent opportunities for kids to get together and celebrate with friends.
For some children, though, birthday parties happen rarely, if ever. Kids with special needs are often left out at party time. Sometimes it’s because they are not invited, and other times they choose not to attend since the structure of the parties generally does not accommodate their needs. Whatever the reason, being excluded, especially habitually, hurts.
When I started working at GAIT Therapeutic Riding Center (GAIT) in January, I heard a story: Twenty-four years ago, Martha Dubensky, GAIT’s Founder and Executive Director, overheard two moms talking about how their children, who were enrolled in GAIT’s equine-assisted therapeutic programs, had never received a birthday invitation. Martha, wanting the kids to experience the joy associated with birthday parties, decided to do something about it.
That’s how GAIT’s annual Horse Birthday Party was born. Every year, GAIT hosts a birthday party for its specially trained horses and invites all the children with special needs enrolled in its programs to attend.
This year, on a sunny Saturday in February, over a dozen children came to GAIT to celebrate in a welcoming environment with their equine pals. There were homemade birthday cards, cupcakes and goodies, candles and singing, a horse obstacle course and treats for the children to make and give to the horses. The beautiful weather contributed to the festive atmosphere.
When I asked Martha about the significance of the horse birthday party tradition, she said, “I have always tried to keep the human in humanity and to treat everyone with love, respect and dignity. This birthday party has always been for our participants and their families. It is not open to the public because most of our participants have difficulty with too many people, sounds, sights and smells… it is too overwhelming for them, and they might feel uncomfortable with the sensory overload at a ‘regular party’ in a strange place with too many people and too much noise.
“GAIT’s mission is to help those with special needs, and those with special needs like a party as much as anyone else, but differently.” Martha continued. “GAIT offers party guests a fun time in a safe, stress-free place with comfortable people and a ‘stable’ environment, plus the horses they know and love.”
Martha also explained the event’s timing and the reason why she likes to celebrate the horses’ birthdays in the wintertime. All Thoroughbred horses turn one year old on January 1 for registry purposes. Although GAIT’s horses are not Thoroughbreds, the organization piggybacks on this idea and makes this a winter party each year to celebrate all the horses’ birthdays at once while battling the winter blues.
Watching the kids enjoy the horses and each other in a place where they felt safe to be themselves was a special treat for me, and the positive feedback I heard from those in attendance confirmed that I was not the only one having a good time.
Lace Holland, who attended the party with her daughters, called the party “a wonderful opportunity for my girls and me to celebrate the amazing horses that give so much love and gentle lessons to those of us who need it most.
“GAIT has become a sanctuary for the girls to come and learn the importance of maintaining focus and how their behavior affects these beautiful horses they have come to love,” Lace shared further. “They develop strong bonds with these amazing creatures and the wonderful people who dedicate their time to teaching.”
Like Lace, I am grateful to Martha for sharing GAIT’s horses in this way, for being an example of compassion in action and for including me in the fun.
GAIT improves the quality of life of children and adults with special needs through equine activities and therapies, resulting in increased independence for participants. It accomplishes its mission using its specially trained horses, professional PATH International Certified Instructors and dedicated, highly trained volunteers to provide equine activities and therapies for people with various disabilities. GAIT is located at 314 Foster Hill Rd., Milford, PA 18337. For more information, call 570/409-1140 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.