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Lucky Orphans horse farm provides rescue for horses and therapy for adults

At Lucky Orphans Horse Rescue, horses help people dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder, domestic violence, substance abuse and trauma.
/ Source: TODAY

Lucky Orphans Horse Rescue is not like other farms: Founded in 2008, it is now home to 52 rescued horses, who will remain there for the rest of their lives. These horses, of all ages and sizes, have experienced terrible conditions like abuse, neglect, starvation and abandonment.

And thanks to the farm in Dover Plains, New York, the horses help people dealing with similar emotional issues like post-traumatic stress disorder, domestic violence, substance abuse and trauma.

"By coming out to the farm and working with the horses, they force you to be in the moment," said owner and founder Deanna Mancuso. "They force you to be in that relationship." In doing so, they help people feel better.

Mancuso learned how powerful a relationship with a horse can be when her grandfather, who struggled with alcoholism, substance abuse, domestic violence and PTSD following the Korean War, introduced her to horseback riding.

"I remember my grandfather telling me that horses bring peace," Mancuso said. When her grandfather was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, he bought her a horse to remember him by. That horse, Nitro, was badly abused — he had cigarette burns all over the softest part of his nose.

"He bit, he kicked, he reared, he did all of the bad things that horses could do," Mancuso said, but she never gave up on him. Thirty years later, Nitro resides at Lucky Orphans and Mancuso's kids have been able to ride him.

"That horse my grandfather gave to me wasn't just a horse. It was really himself, through the mirror," she said. "He saw a lot of himself, the abuse, the trauma, the neglect ... That horse really was the epitome of everything that he was feeling."

Mancuso tells this story to everyone who comes to the farm. Lucky Orphans is open to the public every day from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., but its main mission is equine-assisted psychotherapy, available for clients struggling with PTSD, domestic violence, mental health struggles, substance abuse, family, marital and foster problems.

"We currently have a 6-year-old girl who was molested by her father. We have a 4-year-old girl who lost her father to brain cancer. We have a 10-year-old girl whose parents were drug addicts and are now incarcerated," Mancuso noted, outlining the range of services they offer at the farm.

Lucky Orphans horse farm
Konner doesn't always want to come to the farm, but he always feels better when he leaves.Samantha Okazaki / TODAY

One person who has experienced a tremendous change since coming to the farm is Konner Johnson, 15. Konner was diagnosed with high-functioning autism at age six and started coming to the farm five years ago. His mother, Kristal, brings Konner for riding lessons about once a week.

"When he came to us, he was basically non-verbal, (spoke) very few words and was aggressive. If you asked him to do something and he didn't want to, he would throw a fit in the aisle," Mancuso remembered.

Today, Konner is in a much better place. Working with the horses has given him enough confidence to speak in front of 50 people at a recent fundraiser for the farm.

"He spoke about how Cody (a horse)... and him are the same person. And that's the connection," Mancuso said. "That this boy with autism, who can't connect with his parents and can't look a stranger in the eye... is the same person as a horse, and that horse can take him anywhere he wants to go... He's limitless."

Horse therapy can be expensive: A therapy session costs up to $165. Riding lessons are $45 for a half hour and $75 for a full hour.

Lucky Orphans horse farm
Konner has been riding at Lucky Orphans for five years.Samantha Okazaki / TODAY

"It's not covered by insurance right now," Kristal Johnson, 44, told TODAY. "But we consider it a medical necessity, in his case. He really needs it, and if he didn't have it, things would be a lot more difficult for him."

For Konner, riding the horses at Lucky Orphans is a way to turn a bad day into a positive one.

"Not only are they finding horses that are actually being abused and taking...good care of them, but also, (they're doing) the same with humans," said Konner.