Earlier this month, Norwalk resident Nicholas Ippolito, riding Melos, made his way from the indoor arena at Pegasus Farm in Brewster, N.Y., to the sensory trail, alternating between leaning back in the saddle and then shifting his weight forward into his half-seat position.

With his leader and sidewalker, he and Melos meandered through the woodland paths of slopes and turns, varied footing and man-made sensory experiences, eventually coming to an open meadow where he could practice the posting trot under the watchful eye of his instructor, Liz Fortes.

Pegasus Therapeutic Riding of Brewster, N.Y., provides the therapeutic benefits of horseback riding and other equine-assisted activities to physically, emotionally, and developmentally challenged individuals.

Fortes asked Ippolito and the other two riders to practice ducking under a low-hanging branch. When Melos decided to stop and nibble at the leaves on the branch, Ippolito, 25, burst into laughter -- it was contagious and soon everyone was giggling.

But then it was back to business, as riders demonstrated their halting and backing up skills.

As the adult rider who showed the most improvement in his skills over the past year, Ippolito earned the inaugural Ann Pinkerton Award for Adult Rider of the Year at Pegasus Therapeutic Riding's 30th annual horse show last month.

The award was named for a beloved former adult Pegasus rider.

Hosted by the Richter family at Coker Farm in Bedford, N.Y., the Pegasus horse show, also the organization's major fundraiser, was a celebration of both individual achievement and the importance of teamwork.

More than 80 students with special needs demonstrated the horsemanship skills they practiced during weekly therapeutic lessons at one of Pegasus' five chapter locations in Fairfield County and Putnam and Westchester counties in New York.

When New Canaan resident Julia Simpson, 15, started Pegasus at age 3, she wasn't walking independently and only said a handful of words. That scenario is hard to imagine, as Julia, riding CJ at New Canaan Mounted Troop recently, followed the instructions of her teacher Suzy Angier. She and the other Pegasus riders practiced steering, trotting, and halting and walking on as Angier started and stopped playing music.

More Information

Fact box

Then Julia was allowed to ride off-lead independently from her leader and longtime sidewalker, Pat van de Kamp of Norwalk.

"I know riding has been instrumental to Julia's progress in terms of increasing her physical strength, balance, coordination and even verbally because she has to command the horse verbally," her mom, Debbie, said. It's also helped her confidence. It's huge for her to say she rides. The kids at school are like, `That's so cool.'

Julia earned the Robert M. Stein Outstanding Rider of the Year award at Pegasus' annual horse show. Named in memory of the father of Pegasus horse show director Betsy Stein Medinger, Simpson's award recognized her improved riding skills and outstanding qualities of sportsmanship during the previous year.

"It's rare for someone with special needs to get surprised with a special award. I was torn between telling her before the show so she would understand or going for the surprise. I went for the surprise element," Debbie said, still smiling because she was glad she did.

"Julia knew something wonderful had happened. She took the photo to school and the ribbon is on the mantel."

Van de Kamp, who has been working as Julia's sidewalker for 11 years, said about the Outstanding Rider of the Year honor: "I'm very proud. It's quite an evolution to get to a point that a rider deserves that kind of honor."

"She is an absolute delight to teach," Angier added. She pointed out that when Julia started Pegasus, the focus was not on her riding skills as it is today, but on the therapeutic benefits of horseback riding.

Angier discussed how the motion of the horse transfers to the rider, so spastic muscles relax, muscles not ordinarily used are awakened and the rider experiences a new kind of freedom of motion. For someone who cannot walk, see, communicate or accomplish basic tasks without extreme difficulty, therapeutic riding can be a powerful experience.

Therapeutic riding lessons given by instructors like Angier and Fortes include basic riding skills as well as opportunities for social interaction, recreation, sport, therapy, and work with basic developmental concepts, such as up/down, left/right and fast/slow. As a result, the activities exercise mind and body, producing improved mobility, balance, posture, coordination, language development, behavior control and concentration.

"For a lot of these students who won't be baseball players, or basketball players or participate in team sports for whatever the reason might be, this is a sport and a chance for them to excel at something," Fortes said.

The evolution of Pegasus

A small group of Fairfield County equestrian women began exploring the effectiveness of therapeutic riding in 1974, which led to the birth of Pegasus. In-depth investigation into its benefits, well-established over a long and successful history in Europe, convinced them that this form of therapy should be made available in their communities.

In 1975, the first Pegasus program was established at the Ox Ridge Hunt Club in Darien, beginning with six students. The program inspired the development of eight other chapters throughout Fairfield and Westchester counties.

Today, Pegasus, a nonprofit organization, provides equine-assisted activities and therapies to more than 200 children and adults with physical, cognitive and emotional disabilities. It currently runs programs at Fox Hill Farm in Pleasantville, N.Y.; Kelsey Farm in Greenwich; New Canaan Mounted Troop; Ox Ridge Hunt Club in Darien; and the 20-acre Pegasus Farm in Brewster, N.Y.

All Pegasus instructors are certified by NARHA (formerly the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association) and have first aid and CPR training. The instructors are assisted by scores of dedicated volunteers; without this vital partnership, the program could not exist.

Volunteers and supporters also made the 30th annual Pegasus Horse Show possible. This year, the organization raised $101,560 for its programs.

Lasting connections

Fortes said some students progress to an able-bodied riding program.

"We also have kids here that are independent riders and for one reason or another may not benefit from a regular program for other reasons," she said. "I believe that the horses have an understanding of these students. I've seen horses be so careful with them. I think they know more than we give them credit for, these horses. I've seen them just take care of these kids. It's just amazing.

"I've seen students that came to me with walkers and now are running to their pony. It's unbelievable what these riders do," she said. "But I think the biggest thing is an intangible thing ... what it's like to be on the back of a horse and have a connection. For a lot of these kids with their disabilities -- horses are the great equalizer. Kids that are restricted in their movement suddenly aren't. The horses are big but the kids are in control and for a lot of these students that's a big deal."

To make a donation to Pegasus visit www.pegasustr.org.