celebrating a sense of place

Mane Stream

It's All About the Smiles

By Chris & Lee Wolfe
Photos by Abigail Thomas, Courtesy of Mane Stream


Four-year old, Hunter Ziesekman, with therapist, Melanie Dominko-Richards (right) and two Mane Stream volunteers.

It’s hard to pass by Mane Stream, in Oldwick, NJ, without noticing the ponies - stout Welsh and Dartmoor crosses, Norwegian Fjords, a thoroughbred, a warmblood gelding, and a sorrel Paint mare. From the road, it’s just another sweet pastoral scene in New Jersey horse country, and even the most seasoned equestrian wouldn’t notice anything out of the ordinary, but if you venture beyond the green paddocks and the “volunteers needed” sign, you’ll discover that these ponies are part of an elite herd. They are scrupulously selected to be members of a unique team of clinicians, instructors, volunteers and horses. And what looks like just another elaborate riding facility on the outside is actually a cutting-edge therapeutic center improving the quality of life for individuals with physical, developmental, emotional and medical challenges.

As Executive Director Trish Hegeman explained, Mane Stream has two main programs – therapy and adaptive riding. Both of these programs rely upon their steady stable of ponies, which are put through a rigorous selection process by Mane Stream’s Equine Manager, and PATH Intl. Certified Advanced Instructor, Jen Dermody.

“We have 14 horses in our herd and they’re chosen very specifically for their personality, temperament, and for therapy, especially, for their gait, we want to make sure the horses really bounce,” said Trish Hegemon. “They also need to be what we call, kind of ‘bomb-proof,’ they really can’t be easily spooked. They are mostly older in age and all of our horses are in their second career, sometimes we have horses that are in their third career.”

Therapy at Mane Stream involves licensed occupational, physical, or speech-language therapists, who incorporate traditional forms of therapy with hippotherapy, using horses in a variety of integrative strategies. In physical therapy, the rhythm of the horses’ movement is employed as a therapeutic tool to improve posture, balance, endurance, and ultimately, gait. When employed in combination with standard interventions, the horse’s movement also engages physiological systems that support speech and language deficits. Clients also participate in various activities used in occupational and speech-language therapy, taking advantage of children’s natural tendency to want to interact with the horse and the bonds they develop.

It’s a different of way of getting therapy - you think you’re not getting therapy,” said Jennifer Zieselman, who’s 4-year old son, Hunter, started coming to Mane Stream last summer.

Hunter was born 11 weeks early, and after a long and complicated birth, it was discovered that he had developed Dravet syndrome, a rare, catastrophic form of epilepsy that begins, but is not always diagnosed, in the first year of life. Some of the common issues associated with Dravet Syndrome include prolonged and/or frequent seizures, behavioral and developmental delays, and movement and balance issues, as well as delayed language and speech concerns.

“He’s getting a different form of PT,” said Jennifer. “It develops his core just being on the horse. I feel like he has gotten stronger between Mane Stream and traditional therapy, and I’ve seen a vast improvement in his behavior, communication and mobility. Mel (speech therapist, Melanie Dominko-Richards) is so patient with him. She’s so wonderful. In the winter he had trouble adjusting, but in the last few sessions he has been grabbing Mel’s hand and running into the ring to get on the horse. It’s amazing how much he has changed, how much he looks forward to going.”

We’re still captivated by the beautiful ponies when we pass by Mane Stream, but now we know that it’s not just about the patient, bouncy-gaited horses, it’s not even just about the hard-working clients and devoted therapists, instructors, and volunteers – it’s really all about the smiles.

To find out more about Mane Stream, including their rewarding volunteer opportunities and ways you can support their mission, visit manestreamnj.org or call (908) 439-9636.

“Our director of therapy services, Gina Taylor, is really good about picking horses that are balanced and making sure that they’re going to deliver the movement that’s going to be the most beneficial to the client,” said Trish. “The bonding with the horse is also really important because it’s another living creature, this is not just a bouncy ball that you’re sitting on or anything like that.”

Hippotherapy clients receive treatment on horseback, but there are no saddles and they don’t actually ride independently. Instead, they are led by a skillfully trained group of clinicians and volunteers. The typical team has three to four volunteers who ensure the safety of their clients by controlling the horse with a lead line and a long line, and having side-walkers on each side of the horse. For many of the volunteers, who develop bonds with the clients and therapists, as well as the horses, their work is nearly as beneficial to them as it is their clients.

“I tell everybody ‘this is my therapy,’” said Nancy Grossweiler, an empty-nester who became a volunteer in 2009. “You get so much out of it,” she told us.

Mane Stream refers to their volunteers as the organization’s “heartbeat” and according speech pathologist, Melanie Dominko-Richards, “It couldn’t be done without them.”

“I don’t know a greater word than instrumental,” she said. “It’s the trust. It’s the comradery and it’s the best dedication.”

Melanie came to Mane Stream as camper in 1996, began volunteering when she was 14, and returned as a therapist after getting her master’s degree.  “I never really looked at people with disabilities as different,” she said. “I grew up with them as my friends – from volunteering.”

The other main program at Mane Stream is Adaptive Riding, which uses adaptive teaching techniques and/or equipment to help clients learn riding and horsemanship.

“Adaptive riding is for children and adults with special needs who would not be able to ride in a typical barn environment and so we adapt our lessons to meet the needs of the client,” Trish Hegemon explained. “The goal is to make riders as independent as possible. Some of our riders hardly have control over anything in their lives. There’s not a ton of decisions a lot of them can make and there’s not a lot of circumstances where they’re able to be independent,” said Trish. “This gives them an opportunity to do that and have the horse as a partner, a sort of, we’re in this together kind of thing.”

Complimentary to their two main programs, Mane Stream also offers a unique program called “Take the Reins,” which is free to veterans, and has been of particular interest to those suffering from PTSD, who train to become Mane Stream volunteers. They also offer, “Horses for Healing,” another free program for those currently battling cancer, as well as cancer survivors, who are looking for a way to bond, reduce stress, and strengthen their mind and bodies.

The more you explore the scope and range of what’s being offered at Mane Stream, the more you’ll be amazed, especially when, at first glance, it just looks like a bunch of kids having fun on horseback – and that’s part of the magic. The therapy at Mane Stream can be rigorous and is often physically and mentally challenging, but if you look around, everyone from the dedicated therapists and volunteers, to the hard-working clients are usually smiling.