On a summer visit to the Israel National Therapeutic Riding Association’s farm, Minna Heilpern of Teaneck watched in awe as a teenage boy with autism struggled to mount his horse.
“He had been riding at INTRA for some time, but that day he was having a hard time,” Heilpern recalled. “The horse stood perfectly still for almost 20 minutes until the boy ultimately succeeded. And the riding staff was incredibly patient and encouraging.”
Helping individuals with developmental disabilities and other challenges is the goal of the riding center, which has attracted a strong following in New Jersey.
Founded in 1985 in Havazelet, Israel, INTRA provides therapeutic riding sessions to children and adults with physical and mental disabilities, as well as victims of terror, at-risk youth, and Israeli combat soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.
Roslyn Brendzel of Millburn first heard of INTRA in 1994, when its founder Anita Shkedi visited her synagogue, Congregation B’nai Israel in Millburn.
Brendzel became a donor, and daughter Ashley’s summer job at INTRA was what in part led to a career as a riding instructor and trainer in Idaho, where she teaches riding to at-risk children.
“INTRA combines our love of horses with our love for Israel,” Brendzel told NJJN. “Horses have been a part of my family for several generations. Besides being an accomplished horseman, my father was also an innovator in education and housing for neurologically impaired children and young adults.”
Naomi Eisenberger of Millburn has been involved with INTRA for 20 years, providing support through the charitable collective she heads, Good People Fund. INTRA was also highlighted recently by the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater MetroWest in its quarterly newsletter to funders.
“Financial support from America is very important to INTRA,” Eisenberger said. “INTRA provides a unique form of therapy that helps so many lives across all age spectrums in Israel. Anita is considered a world authority in head trauma and therapeutic riding. By teaching others to live a good, meaningful life, she demonstrates the kind of vision that should be recognized.”
Heilpern used the occasion of her 50th birthday bash in 2002 to raise funds to help buy INTRA a new therapy horse. Today, Pocahontas is one of the farm’s leading horses, and her offspring (Siegel and Starlight) were also trained to provide therapy at the farm.
Nearly every summer Heilpern visits the farm and volunteers during therapy sessions.
“It’s an incredible place, and it’s so gratifying to see the progress of the people who come there for treatment,” she told NJJN.
It takes a special horse (and many hours of training) to work with the disabled, said Shkedi, who founded INTRA with her husband, Giora, after she made aliya from England. Her own horse, Sara, made the journey with her and became her first therapy horse.
“While most horses would get frightened and run away, therapy horses are trained to handle unusual, erratic behavior,” Shkedi told NJJN during a recent visit to the farm.
Providing therapy has also been therapeutic for Shkedi. Her son, Jonathan, died after suffering a brain injury in the Lebanon War in 1993. Her book, Traumatic Brain Injury and Therapeutic Riding, is dedicated to Jonathan.
“Work became my therapy. It became very satisfying to help one soldier after another, to bring joy to mentally disabled riders, and to see troubled teens become empowered by the balance and control horses bring to their lives,” she said.
Balancing the farm’s expenses has been a continual struggle for the Shkedis, who have launched a capital campaign to relocate the farm to a larger property and expand their therapeutic services. Training and maintaining each horse costs about $9,000 a year. INTRA must also raise funds to cover each rider’s therapy sessions, as well as staff salaries, according to Laura C. Huvard, INTRA’s director of fund development.
For more information about INTRA, contact Friendsofintra@aol.com.