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Horses offer gentle assist for autistic children

program for riders with disabilities
Union County Freeholder Nancy Ward (2nd L) speaks with Anthony Vargas of Elizabeth as he sits on Coco during a recent session of the Mobile Assisted Riding Club, a recreational program for children with disabilities, at the Watchung Stable in Mountainside. They are joined by horse walker Jocelyn Spelker (L) and Judi White from the Crossroads School in Westfield where Anthony is a student.
(Photo by Jim Lowney/County of Union)

Elizabeth – A new group of horse lovers has joined the many youngsters who ride in Union County.  As part of Union County’s recreational programming for people with disabilities, students with autism are participating in a six-week program of riding and horse care at the County’s Watchung Stable.

The program is funded by a grant from the Knights of Columbus of Clark.

“On behalf of my colleagues on the Freeholder Board, I would like to express my gratitude to the Knights of Columbus,” said Freeholder Chairman Angel G. Estrada. “Through their generosity, our County stable can provide more young people with a wonderful experience.”

The students are participating in the Mobile Assisted Riding Club, or M.A.R.C., a program that helps children and adolescents with disabilities develop caring, healing relationships that build life skills and self-esteem.

The grant of $3,570 covers the full cost of the program, including specially trained horses, equipment, and instructors.

In each of the program’s six sessions, the children groom the horses, learn some of the basics of horsemanship and horse care, and ride with individual assistance.  They are organized into small groups, so each student can enjoy a riding experience that fits their capabilities.

For the pilot project, twenty-four students from Crossroads School in Westfield are attending the course, accompanied by various staff members.

“This outstanding program has provided our students with the opportunity to experience close interaction with horses in a safe environment,” said Judi White, Supervisor of Instruction at Crossroads School.  “It is truly remarkable to observe the calmness that the children demonstrate as soon as they mount the horses.”

Crossroads, a member of the Union County Educational Services Commission, is a public elementary school located in Westfield.  Its programming meets the highly specialized needs of children between the ages of 3-12 who are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders.

The Watchung Stable is a public facility owned by the County of Union.  Since 1933, it has provided County residents with affordable horseback riding opportunities at all skill levels, including 26 miles of bridle paths winding through a 2,000 acre nature preserve.

The stable is located in the Watchung Reservation off Summit Lane in Mountainside.  Information about classes, trail rides, summer camps, birthday parties and group tours is available at (908) 789-3665, or through the County web site at  The facility is open seven days a week and visitors are always welcome.