The sky's the limit for these riders

Horsemanship school focuses on special needs

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Horses do not see disabilities, said Nancy Tejo, of Merrick, owner of Sky Riding LI at Parkview Stables in Central Islip. They only see people.

Sky Riding LI is a therapeutic riding center and school geared toward people with special needs, though its lessons are open to anyone. “Horses respect you so long as you treat them well,” Tejo, 51, noted.

She works with riders with conditions ranging from autism to charge syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that causes heart defects and slow physical growth.

Sky Riding LI offers occupational therapy, known in horse circles as hippotherapy, for pre-school children through adults. But the experience is more than that, Tejo said. At the school, students talk with one another, interact with one another. “Part of the experience is being social with each other,” Tejo said.“That’s what these kids so desperately need.”

As a child, Tejo, who grew up in Massapequa Park, longed for her own horse, but never had one. She earned a diploma from Massapequa High School and a bachelor’s degree in biology from Hofstra University, intending to attend medical school. She started work on a doctorate in molecular and cellular biology at SUNY Downstate College of Medicine in Brooklyn, but left the program after a year to marry and start a family, shelving her plans to become a doctor.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, she said, she started to think more deeply about her life. The mother of three considered what was truly important to her, what she wanted. Her thoughts kept returning to her childhood dream of owing a horse.

“I had always wanted to ride as child,” Tejo said. “It seemed, like, what am I waiting for? You honestly never know what’s going to happen in life.”

At 37, she started taking riding lessons at the Thomas School of Horsemanship in Melville. She ate it up. She had found her passion, she said.

Tejo took lessons at various schools, learning three key show disciplines: dressage, hunter and hunter seat equitation. “I wanted to learn everything,” Tejo said. “I took a job at a barn for minimum wage. I learned horsemanship, horse care, shoeing, medicine. I cleaned stalls, you name it. I really took it very seriously.”

She finally purchased her own horse –– Madison, a thoroughbred trail horse –– from a woman in Bedford, N.Y. She also started teaching her middle child, Laura, to ride.

Tejo eventually had to retire Madison to a farm in Virginia, after the animal suffered a series of injuries. Tejo no longer owns a horse. Through her lessons with her daughter, though, horsemanship education got into her blood.

In 2008 she was certified as a riding instructor by the Professional Associaiton of Therapeutic Horsemanship. From there, Ski Riding LI was born, offering individual and group lessons.

“I’m responsible for every rider, every horse,” Tejo said. “Safety is my number-one priority.”

Lessons are given throughout the year on Sundays at Parkview Stables, which features two fenced-in outdoor arenas and one indoor arena, roughly half the size of a football field, said Tejo, who is communications director of The Community Synagogue in Port Washington during the week. A team of volunteer walkers and a licensed clinical social worker assist her at Sky Riding LI.

Esther Marks, of Lynbrook, has a daughter, Katherine Novelli, 19, with autism. Marks and her husband of 32 years, Dean Novelli, signed Katherine up for riding lessons at the Horseability Center for Equine Facilitated Programs in Old Westbury when she was 5 years old.

Tejo was working at Horseability, where the Marks/Novelli family met her. Tejo, Esther Marks said, “is a phenomenal instructor, a great trainer. There are boundaries and rules, and she’s gentle about them. We’ve been incredibly happy with her.”

Katherine rode in the prestigious Hampton Classic, one of the largest outdoor horse shows in the United States, three times –– in 2011, 2012 and 2013.

Cathy Josephson, of Northport, has a daughter, Erika, with charge syndrome, which has left her deaf and legally blind (she can see only a short distance out of one eye). Erika has trouble sitting up for long periods of time, so her lessons last only 30 minutes. “She’s aware of what’s going on,” Cathy said. “Nancy does a great thing. She sings to her. They play games.”

Erika “has gotten so much stronger,” her mother said. “Her upper-body strength has gotten much better.”

Tejo, she said, “interacts with the kids. She understands kids with special needs. She knows how to engage them.”

Though she is an adult, Erika weighs all of 70 pounds. “My daughter loves dogs, and my daughter loves horses,” Cathy said. “I would have never thought my daughter could ride a horse.”