BATH TOWNSHIP — For 25 years, Victory Gallop Inc. has been bringing children and horses together, using equestrian therapy to help thousands of children.
On Saturday, the organization best known for its program to bring ponies — Petie the Ponie and his successor, Willie Nelson — to children at area hospitals, celebrated its silver anniversary.
Back in 1995, Sue Miller and Kim Gustely were just realizing a dream to open a riding program together.
“We started with one rider and two horses,” Gustely said.
Today, 81 children participate and Victory Gallop has 11 horses, all donated. About 40 children participate in a companion fitness program.
Since the coronavirus pandemic hit, the in-hospital pony program has gone virtual, but Willie Nelson has made live appearances outside area nursing homes, giving cheer to an older crowd.
Sue Miller said the organization wanted to hold the open house to bring together people who have participated in the program over the years and those who still volunteer.
Gustely said the organization got a big boost when a cable network filmed a show about Petie several years ago. The exposure at one point led two women from Texas to drive up one day, unannounced, wanting to meet the famous pony.
“They came two other times,” Gustely said. “It was very funny.”
An arena was built in 1998, home to Willie Nelson and several horses. On Saturday, former riders and their families wandered the building, stoking memories and viewing videos about the organization’s history.
From the start, Gustely said, the program was designed to use equestrian therapy to help severely ill children and those with emotional and behavioral disorders.
Former and current participants praised the program Saturday as they mingled with friends.
Laurie Schueler, mother of 14-year-old Jane, said the program has helped her daughter, who has a language disorder. Learning how to ride a horse has built confidence in Jane, and she has developed friendships with other riders.
“They go at whatever a kid’s pace is,” she said. “It’s like a big family out here.”
Amy Maryanski, now 27, came to the open house to touch base with friends she made while at Victory Gallop. Like Laurie Schueler, she said the staff, volunteers and participants are like family. She continues to volunteer, along with her father.
Maryanski said the program helped her develop focus. She’s now deep into martial arts with a 3rd-degree black belt.
“I would not be the person I am today without Victory Gallop,” she said.
Maria Niro and her daughter, Julia Niro, 23, returned for similar reasons. During the program, Julia, who is autistic, made lasting friendships.
“She just enjoyed it — she was happy,” Maria Niro said. “She is still riding.”
Julia said her favorite animals are birds, but she enjoyed her time at Victory Gallop. When children turn 18, they age out.
“I like this program because of all the people and the horses,” she said.
Brandon and Tracy Worley are neighbors of the Victory Gallop estate who decided to become sponsors after they saw its positive effect on children.
“We look at it as an investment into kids,” Brandon Worley said. “We can see the direct impact.”
Tracy Worley volunteers for the organization.
“It’s a feel-good program,” she said. “… Within 10 minutes, they’re on a horse and their whole demeanor changes.”
Another volunteer, Paula Howard of Fairlawn, said her son participated in the program when he was in middle school and she’s been volunteering ever since.
“It was so good for his confidence,” she said.
Gustely said the time has gone by quickly as the program developed and hit its stride.
“I can’t believe it’s been 25 years,” she said.
Alan Ashworth can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @newsalanbeaconj.