N.J. girl gets horsepower to help sick and disabled kids

Galloping in the halls will definitely be prohibited, but prancing along the corridors is a distinct possibility for Maya when she visits schools and hospitals throughout Bergen County, N.J.

Maya is a miniature horse that, with the aid of 11-year-old Sydney Spett, will be going on visits to bring the experience of petting and caring for an animal to children who would not ordinarily be able to come to a farm.

Sydney, a student at Solomon Schechter Day School in New Milford, N.J., raised funds to buy Maya as part of her community service project before celebrating her bat mitzvah on Feb. 18.

Most parents hearing about plans for such a project might scream, “A horse?” no matter what the size.

But the idea wasn’t so crazy for Dana and Steven Spett, Sydney’s parents. The Spetts own Three Sisters Farm, named for the three daughters in the family, in Mahwah, N.J., and operate a program called Pony Power Therapies.

Dana Spett founded the program almost eight years ago to provide equine-assisted therapy to children as young as 2 through adulthood with debilitating and developmentally challenging conditions.

She started out with just one horse and four riders. Now there are 22 horses, a full-time staff and more than 250 trained volunteers providing 100 to 200 rides a week.

The volunteers at the farm include Sydney, her sisters Emma and Zoe, and many of the children at her school, who look at this as a great way to do community service.

It followed on the success of her mother’s enterprise, and the fact that Sydney has been riding horses since she was 2, that her community project be equine.

“We’ve heard of foundations that have done that [provided therapy animals] before for cancer kids, and it was the best thing to do,” said Sydney. The only way to accomplish her dream of bringing a horse to the children who couldn’t get to the farm was to get a miniature horse, which she did.

Creating a letter outlining her goals, plans, and how she intended to conduct the program, Sydney sent it to local organizations, family members and friends. She was able to raise the $1,200 fee to buy Maya from Sharing Village, a program for pediatric oncology patients using the horse to help them cope with their illnesses.

However, the fundraising is ongoing, as money is needed for special equipment and to care for the horse.

“We’re going to take Maya into children’s hospitals and children’s disability schools so that they can feel that they can do something that normal children would be able to do,” Sydney said.

For example, Maya would be a reading buddy, “so they would be able to read to her, pet her, take care of her,” Sydney added. She will teach the children how to handle Maya, including how to groom her.

This project would be impossible if it were not for the fact that Maya is so small — 34 inches high at the highest point on her back — because of a DNA mutation. Such horses are normal except that they stop growing at an early age.

As for Sydney’s bat mitzvah, she chose not to have a party in order to be surrounded by family and friends at the Davidson Center in Jerusalem, near the Western Wall. But that was only the beginning of her trip.

The family visited K’far Giladi as well as one of the 16 centers of INTRA (Israel National Therapeutic Riding Association), which describes itself as “a nonprofit organization committed to teaching equine skills and horseback riding to people with a wide variety of disabilities.”

According to Dana Spett, Pony Power Therapy partners with the Israeli organization. “We help train volunteers here who spend a year abroad volunteering there,” she said. “We’re trying to set up a foundation to help support INTRA.”

Sydney spoke about her project during her bat mitzvah. “It just feels good to be helping those kids,” she said.

Abigail Klein Leichman
Abigail Klein Leichman

Abigail Klein Leichman is associate editor of ISRAEL21c.