The next crop of aspiring Special Olympians are training in Cutchogue. Foxrun Farm’s North Fork Therapeutic Riding Program has been enriching the lives of Long Islanders struggling with cognitive, physical and developmental disabilities since 2015. The year-round program, designed with the help of barn manager and director of the lesson and therapeutic riding program Maryann D’Auria, aims to advance students’ coordination while providing them a sense of self-control and self-confidence often compromised by their disabilities—no matter their age. Under the veteran trainer’s supervision, the program expanded in March and is now offering a new Special Olympics New York training club on the East End.
The program’s extension is befitting of D’Auria’s background. The Long Island native has trained people with disabilities in therapeutic horse riding programs for 25 years—even coaching one of her autistic students, Scott Tongue, to gold and silver medals at the 2003 Special Olympics World Summer Games in Dublin, Ireland.
D’Auria started riding in the third grade at the urging of her father. “To tell you the truth, I didn’t want to do it—I was afraid of it at first. But then he signed me up to a five-week program with the Girl Scouts and I just started to like it,” D’Auria recalled. By age 13, she had her own horse and began competing in high profile shows such as the Hampton Classic. “I gave a few lessons at fourteen with the supervision of my trainer at the time, and I just got it in my head that this is something that I wanted to do. And that was my plan all along: to be a riding instructor.” By 17, she started volunteering at a therapeutic riding center, giving lessons and doing “anything having to do with horses.”
She became the director of the therapeutic riding program at the Red Barn in Old Brookville at 21 and started bringing students to Special Olympics and other therapeutic riding competitions across the country. In 2007, she moved to a 10-acre farm with 20 horses in Southold, where she was the trainer and barn manager. When that farm sold in 2011, she found herself in need of a place to board her horses, which led her to Leonard and Beryl Dank at the 26-acre Foxrun Farm in Cutchogue.
“Mr. Dank had the farm closed at that point. He was retired…[but] he reopened the farm and I brought my horses there. At the time I was doing some teaching in different places and then I moved over to do my work at his farm…I was showing him pictures of some of my students.” That’s when Dank introduced the idea of starting a therapeutic riding program at Foxrun. “He thought that Foxrun Farm could do it, and I said, ‘Sure, we could do that.’ He’s been very generous about using his farm for that activity.” The program is in the process of becoming a nonprofit now that it’s added the Special Olympics component. “Horses really can help people,” D’Auria said. “[Riding] helps with balance, posture, eye-hand coordination, self-esteem. Some of these students can’t participate in physical activity, but they can horseback ride. And I love sharing the horses with people. I love seeing that the horses are helping people.”