The Manito Equestrian Center in Allentown, which offers therapeutic horseback riding lessons. The lessons are for riders with a disability or for those who have suffered trauma. (Megan Brubaker/B&W Staff)

Manito Life Center empowers disabled athletes through horseback riding

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“I want to walk,” Mackenzie Eisenhart said to Jennifer Lomastro as the arena gates closed behind them. 

“Alright. Then let’s walk,” Lomastro replied, knowing she had always kept her promises. 

He was prospect number three out of 15 horses in the running for Eisenhart’s competition partner. Rock kept his head down as he tuned into Lomastro’s equine queues. Lomastro’s decision would rely solely on Rock’s obedience and fit for Eisenhart’s needs. 

Twelve horses later, the choice was clear. Eisenhart, her mother, Tammy Eisenhart, and Lomastro returned to the stable to claim Rock as a part of their team. But before Tammy Eisenhart and Lomastro could even sign the papers, Rock made sure that his choice was clear. 

For the first time that day, Rock led himself. Edging his way towards Mackenzie Eisenhart, he rested his head on her lap. 

Before the signatures were official, Rock officially chose Mackenzie Eisenhart. 

Just two years after Mackenzie Eisenhart met Lomastro, Rock would not just help her  to walk. Together, Mackenzie Eisenhart and Rock would run. 

The Manito Equestrian Center in Allentown established the Manito Life Center in 2003. The establishment offers therapeutic horseback riding lessons to riders that have either suffered trauma or live with a disability. When the center recruited Lomastro in 2014, the therapeutic riding program grew to teach over 300 therapeutic lessons per month. 

Pushing the preconceived limits of those with disabilities, the Manito Life Center caters their program to each riders’ needs, increasing confidence and creating a dynamic support system for their community. Due to the proven benefits of therapeutic riding, Lomastro works to publish research to ensure that the resource is accessible to all, transforming therapeutic options for the disabled. 

Whether they need nine spotters or one, Lomastro and her team ensure each rider has access to the therapeutic capabilities of horses. To Lomastro, her riders are more than clients: At Manito, they are athletes. 

“This is not a pony ride,” Lomastro said. “We are riding instructors, and we teach a sport. I don’t care what your challenge is. I have the same goals for you, and we don’t set limits with those goals.” 

Born with cerebral palsy, a disorder that affects a person’s ability to maintain posture and balance, Mackenzie Eisenhart has spent the majority of her 25 years within the confines of her wheelchair. But for the 30 minutes of her ride, she is free from her limitations. Reigns in hand, she is in control. 

Therapeutic riding instructor Katie Foster works one-on-one with Mackenzie Eisenhart, guiding her through exercises and drills that help to strengthen her motor skills. But the benefits of each lesson extend far beyond the lesson plan. Foster has seen first-hand the confidence that comes from a relationship between the rider and horse. 

“For many of our riders, everything in their lives has been done for them. They don’t have a say in what happens,” Foster said. “When they partner with a horse, they are in charge of their lives. Even if  it’s just for 30 minutes, you can see in their faces how special that feels.” 

The moment Mackenzie Eisenhart steps off her wheelchair, she is no longer bound. While her physical limitations pose struggles at times, her relationship with Rock has increased her confidence as a rider. With each lesson, Rock and Mackenzie Eisenhart choose each other. 

“Rock truly knows me, and I know him,” Mackenzie Eisenhart said. “Being able to ride is my proudest accomplishment. I finally feel happy and free when Rock and I run.” 

While each lesson is unique to the rider, each athlete shares one thing in common: They are a member of the Manito family. 

Tammy Eisenhart has found an unmatched support system at Manito Life Center. 

“Manito is a magical place. We call it the Island of Misfit Toys,” Tammy Eisenhart said. “We all fit in. We’re all there for each other.” 

As a homebase of acceptance and growth, Manito Life Center serves as a space for clients to support each other through their struggles. 

“I think that (our community is special) because nobody comes here with malice,” Lomastro said. “If you come here to help or as a client, you come here with an open heart, and that makes for a pretty amazing, understanding group of people.” 

As the Manito community unravels the benefits of therapeutic riding, Lomastro currently partners with Muhlenberg University to publish research regarding the scientific benefits of horseback riding. Lomastro finds that the gait of the trot stimulates the language center in the brain in ways that technology cannot replicate. The Manito community personifies the impact of therapeutic riding, and Lomastro is committed to providing this life-changing experience for all riders. 

“Accessibility is not a physicality,” Lomastro said. “It’s not about a ramp on a building or an ADA standard. It’s about building a community where accessibility is an attitude. It means that no matter who you are, you receive respect, and you are wanted here. We want that experience for everybody.”

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