NEW BLOOMFIELD — This weekend, riders will saddle up to support people with autism.
Saturday is the third annual Angels for Autism Hoof-A-Thon, a fundraiser to support therapeutic horseback riding for children and adults with autism.
"I set a 20-year goal when I created the idea," said Charlene Ferrin, event organizer and head of Therapeutic Horse Riding, of why she's kept the Hoof-A-Thon going. "I never give up on dreams, so we're persevering to get the information out and continue to connect our horses to people who need them."
This year, the ride sets out at 11 a.m. from Nonna's Barn at 9703 Route AE in New Bloomfield. The riders — and those following behind in the hay wagon — will enjoy a 13-mile meander around New Bloomfield, with a break for lunch, before returning to Nonna's Barn for an evening of music and food.
This is a bring-your-own-horse event; Ferrin said the few available to borrow have already been spoken for.
"It's never too late to sign up," she said. "We have a hay wagon (for non-riders), there's a live band, a dinner and dance. Even if you don't ride, you can come that evening."
It's a $155 donation to join on horseback or $44 as a wagon rider — which includes the ride, the dinner and dance and a collectible bandana. It's $22 just to join the dinner and dance afterwards, which will start at about 6 p.m. Hoodies and T-shirts are also for sale.
"It all goes to Angels for Autism," Ferrin said. "The funds help take care of horses and pay expenses for them. We serve anyone we can take, at no cost."
Participants are encouraged to collect pledges in advance of the ride. The top donation collector will win a custom-painted "really nice" bridle, while the one in second place will get an engraved pocketknife.
"One of my kids, the 9-year-old, has earned something like $620 on his own so far," Ferrin said.
Last year's ride drew 12 participants, and Ferrin is expecting at least 20 this year.
Putting an event like this together in between offering regular horseback riding lessons and therapy sessions is no small task, but Ferrin is a true believer in the good horse therapy can do.
"Some of my own miracles I've witnessed — children that are nonverbal will start to say words, in one instance in the first class, which brought tears to everyone's eyes," she said. "I see it, I know it works, so I continue to do it. Horses know what they're doing more than we do."
Her nephew and niece — one with autism, the other with Down syndrome — also benefited from spending time around Ferrin's horses, she said.
Ferrin never planned to become a horseback riding teacher. She started riding at 3, trailing after her father, whom she described as an "old cowboy."
"I started teaching over 25 years ago, just horseback riding lessons and raising and training my own horses," she said. "As time went on, about six or seven years in, I got a little boy with Downs Syndrome who needed therapy. I started him riding in front of me, and he loved it."
In 2016, she launched Therapeutic Horse Riding. Angels for Autism was the first program she launched under the charity's umbrella, but Ferrin hopes to start Horses for Warriors — a program for veterans with PTSD — in the near future.
She's also eager to help other barns launch their own autism therapy programs and Hoof-A-Thons.
"Our project is to help as many as we can, one event at a time," she said.
To learn more about Angels for Autism or Ferrin's other programs, visit nonnasbarn.com or ironwingranch.com.