Therapeutic driving ramps up opportunities for those with special needs

By Nancy Jaffer The Star-Ledger

A ramp that unfolds at the back of Lord Stirling stable's therapeutic driving carriage makes it easy for wheelchair-bound people, such as freeholder Patrick Scaglione, to go in and out of the vehicle Nancy Jaffer/The Star-Ledger

A ramp that unfolds at the back of Lord Stirling stable’s therapeutic driving carriage makes it easy for wheelchair-bound people, such as freeholder Patrick Scaglione, to go in and out of the vehicle Nancy Jaffer/The Star-Ledger

A very clever carriage made its debut last week at Somerset County’s Lord Stirling Stable, where it will be part of a therapeutic driving program set to begin in the fall.

The back unfolds, enabling a wheelchair to be pushed up a ramp and then moved into place at the front of the vehicle, a procedure that will offer people with special needs a chance to be in the driver’s seat, both literally and figuratively. There’s no need for an awkward “wheelchair transfer” that involves lifting someone out of the chair and into the carriage.

Therapeutic riding serves its clients well, with more than 20 such programs in the state, including one at Lord Stirling. But not everyone who could benefit from a special equestrian connection can take advantage of the opportunities they offer. Some people with disabilities simply don’t have the balance to sit in a saddle; others are too heavy to ride, often a result of medication and lack of exercise; perhaps they have a fear of heights or physically just can’t manage being atop a horse.

“This is a way to get wheelchair people off the sidelines and make them part of the action,” said Somerset County Park Foundation President Roc Dameo before the Lord Stirling program’s ribbon-cutting.

The driving program concept was broached to Dameo by Margie Margentino, Lord Stirling’s manager, who is well-known in the world of international driving as a course designer and a judge. She figured it would cost $10,000 for horse, carriage and harness, which she told Dameo, thinking that could be a deal-breaker.

But it wasn’t.

“Roc made my day by saying, ‘This is what the Park Foundation is for; to help make programs like this a reality.’ He said he was confident that the foundation would find the driving program a worthwhile endeavor, and would give us the funds to purchase the carriage and harness,” Margentino recounted.

Luckily, Lord Stirling didn’t have to buy driving horses. Cullen, a Connemara, was given to the stable by Ruth and Robert Mulvey of Cream Ridge. Max, a Welsh cob, was donated by international driver Boots Wright, who campaigned him as part of her pony four-in-hand world championships team.

Somerset County Deputy Freeholder Director Patrick Scaglione, a paraplegic injured in a motorcycle accident, had the chance to experience a new sensation at the stable in Basking Ridge when he went up the ramp in his wheelchair on the carriage’s inaugural run Thursday and sat behind Cullen.

Scaglione held the reins, but Robert Mulvey had a set of his own reins and was doing the actual driving in a set-up reminiscent of the way student automobile drivers and their instructors operate.

Obviously enjoying his jaunt around the property, Scaglione said, “it’s a great program. The stables and all of the park commission have tried to make as much of the recreational opportunities (as possible) in the county available to everyone. So something like this is going to offer it to a much broader audience. Hopefully, they will participate in things they could never otherwise participate in.”

Those who could take part include returning military veterans, whether they suffer from a physical problem or post-traumatic stress disorder, Margentino noted.

The carriage, put together with parts from England by a Pennsylvania carriage maker, appears to be the only one of its kind in a New Jersey program.

At the moment, the lone therapeutic driving program in the state certified by PATH International (Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International) is Special Strides at Congress Hill Farm in Monroe Township. That program, which began in 2008, is named after Joseph Farrelly, a first responder who died on 9/11.

“He wanted to make a difference in the world,” said Susie Rehr, one of Special Strides’ executive directors, explaining why his wife, Stacey, donated the seed money that started it. They are looking for another driving horse so they can serve more people.

But Rehr noted that therapeutic driving is “very labor- and resource-intensive because of all the safety considerations.” She estimated it generally takes four or five people to help one disabled driver. Anyone who wants to volunteer or has a horse to donate can contact the program through its website.

Meanwhile, Celtic Charms Therapeutic Riding in Howell is starting a driving program in the autumn. Next month, however, it will be holding a developing drivers clinic in connection with U.S. Driving for the Disabled.

The clinician for the Aug. 10-11 session is Sara Schmitt of Pittstown, a veteran of several driving world championships. Schmitt, who is a driving judge, said therapeutic driving offers an opportunity for those who otherwise couldn’t have an equine partner.

“It makes people feel more independent, more enabled,” she said.

Anyone who wants to attend, either as a potential volunteer, as a driver or just to learn about driving for the disabled, is welcome. They should contact Celtic Charms’ director of volunteers, Nancy Forsyth at (732) 600-4127 or

Debbie Banfield, the former president of USDFD, observed that therapeutic driving “gives people the opportunity to go places they couldn’t normally go in a wheelchair; it gives them a reason to wake up every day and something to look forward to.

“Horses are great therapy for individuals with disabilities. When they have horses in their life, it makes all the difference in the world, because they can be responsible for something; normally in their life, someone is taking care of them.”

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