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North Hills horse program helping the special needs community

| Monday, May 7, 2018, 9:00 p.m.
Allison Park resident Penelope Beneviat, 8, who has autism, participates in the Riding for the Handicapped of Western Pennsylvania in Wexford.
Allison Park resident Penelope Beneviat, 8, who has autism, participates in the Riding for the Handicapped of Western Pennsylvania in Wexford.

Children with special needs are building self-confidence while learning new skills through a therapeutic horseback riding program right here in the North Hills.

Riding for the Handicapped of Western Pennsylvania, located in Wexford, provides at no cost, a riding program for children of all disabilities. More than just a pastime activity for the day, the children are taught how to ride and control a horse and follow direction while on it.

A program that began more than 30 years ago, they continue this year's horse riding season May 3 and running into early fall, two days per week, for more than 70 riders, according to T.M. “Toots” Abbott, who is a director of the program.

They accept children with various disabilities, but most of their current riders have autism, said Abbott, of North Park.

Physical benefits include improving circulation, muscle tone, and calmness, according to the RHWPA website. They accept riders from all over the Pittsburgh region.

“Parents say the children are more relaxed afterward. And kids and animals almost always work,” said Abbott.

Jennifer Beyerl, of Allison Park, has a 14-year-old son who has been participating in the riding program for the past several years. Like most kids, she said he was a little apprehensive of getting on the horse at first. But that's changed.

“As time goes on it relaxes them,” said Beyerl, of her son and other riders. “It transfers to real life, to be resilient.”

Duncan attends New Horizon School in Beaver County and is at the eighth-grade level.

“It's so worth it. His speech has come a long way and it has improved his hand-eye coordination,” she said.

Beyerl said her older son, Jacob, is a volunteer at the program as well.

Like all children who come to RHWPA, they'll continue to work with a child until they feel comfortable getting on the horse.

Shelley Bates, instructor and board member said, they also see older kids develop an interest in a hobby that they can talk to other kids about at school, maybe how “cool” it is to ride a horse and what they do at the program. It gives them a chance to be on a “peer-to-peer basis” with them, she said.

Abbott said they're always looking for volunteers and no experience is necessary.

The all-volunteer program is made possible by grants and fundraising, said Abbott. She estimates it costs between $85,000 to $90,000 annually for program needs.

They do hold several fundraisers every year, including a recent Spin-a-Thon at The Sweat Shoppe in Aspinwall. Next on the schedule is “A High Tea” celebrating the upcoming royal wedding and Preakness on May 19 at noon at the The Mews Clubhouse in Ross Township.

The annual RHWPA Golf Outing will be held on June 9 with a shotgun start at 1:30 p.m. at the Pittsburgh North Golf Course in Gibsonia. Contact the RHWPA for information at 724-443-4485.

And Flowerama on Babcock Boulevard will donate 10 percent of its proceeds if using the promo code “toots” when ordering.

Abbott said they also hold a lottery raffle and a Daylily sale both at the barn on Grubbs Road. In the fall, they have the “Ride-a-thon” at the North Park horse ring.

Ray Abate has been a volunteer there for more than 20 years.

“It's beneficial to me as it helps me keep my life in perspective. Since I started, I don't worry about the small things,” said Abate, of Middlesex.

And the horses are also screened and trained as well, said Abbott. The horses have to be patient as the riders could become upset while riding or unknowingly do something that would startle a normal horse.

Right now, they have nine horses, and Abbott said they are currently looking for a pony to add to the program.

“Horses have no pre-judgement of them, and the riders can control this large animal. In a child with special needs who often feels powerless, it's a huge benefit,” Bates said.

This is a popular program and there is a waiting list. Anyone seeking to sign up should contact the RHWPA at

Natalie Beneviat is a Tribune-Review contributor.

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