On a bitterly cold and snowy afternoon, Saturday, Dec. 20, over 250 spectators gathered at the magnificent Castlegould in the Sands Point Preserve to participate in the first assisted horseback riding program for children with autism and their families. The program, called Hooves For the Holidays, was sponsored by the Sonny Garguilo Riding Center for Kids, the ELIJA Foundation and the Nassau Suffolk Chapter of the Autism Society of America

Hooves for the Holidays transformed the castle grounds into a winter wonderland of family friendly free indoor and outdoor holiday inspired activities such as keepsake craft products, photos with Santa, holiday-clad horses, pony rides, fresh baked goods and trackless train rides. The main purpose of the event was to provide an enjoyable educational day out in a festive setting and introduce the community to the future equine-assisted riding program known as Hooves for Hope planned for Castlegould.

Sonny Garguilo is the founder of the Sonny Garguilo Riding Center for Kids. In his formative years in Brooklyn, his father, who was an avid horseman, inspired his love of horses. His fondness for horses increased dramatically when he met a horseman named Josh Lyons at a horse expo festival. Lyons tutored him in the art of natural horsemanship, which included techniques such as sitting a horse down and riding without a bridle. Horsemen who have achieved this level of skill have been referred to as horse whisperers, a term which increased in popularity after the Robert Redford movie of the same name, which debuted in 1998. Garguilo, one of the country's leading natural horsemen, has conducted teaching clinics and performed on opening day at Belmont Racetrack.

Johnny Ferrara, the executive director of the Sonny Garguilo Riding Center for Kids, teamed up with Garguilo in the founding of Hooves for Hope. Ferraro and Garguilo have much work ahead of them in planning the equine center for autistic children and their families. Much equipment is needed. They will offer sponsorships for those interested in assisting with the purchase of saddles, bridles and other horseback riding equipment. An indoor riding track is also under consideration for Castlegould. They recognize the need for volunteers to help with the expansion of their program. Ferrara emphasized the fact that the volunteers should have some rudimentary training in working with autistic children as well as some knowledge of horsemanship.

On April 18, 2009, Garguilo is scheduled to ride America, one of several horses he owns, from Montauk Point to Sands Point Preserve to raise money for Hooves For Hope. He hopes to cover 20 miles a day and is expected to complete his journey at Sands Point Preserve on April 25. Both Garguilo and Ferrara had high praise for the help received from the Board of Directors of the Friends of the Sands Point Preserve. They recognize that there is much work planned for the future. Those interested in making a tax-deductible donation or volunteering may do so through their website at

In 2002, Nicole Dibra and Debora Harris founded ELIJA, an acronym for Empowering Long Island's Journey through Autism. ELIJA is a nonprofit agency dedicated to improving quality education and intervention services for individuals with autism. It is administered by a staff of six volunteers and serves a population of over 5,000 people, which includes those with autism and their families. While participants in the program come primarily from Nassau and Suffolk counties, there are many from other sections of the tri-state area.

Mrs. Debora Harris received a bachelor of arts in sociology from Hofstra University and is a Board Certified Associate Behavior Analyst. She completed her course work and received a Certificate in Professional Development in Autism through Penn State University. Mrs. Nicole Dibra received her course work in Behavior Analysis and her certificate in Professional Development in Autism through Penn State University, Bureau of Special Education. Mrs. Harris and Deborah serve as co-executive directors of the ELIJA program.

ELIJA welcomes contributions for the treatment of those afflicted with autism, which affects one of every 150 children. Volunteers are also welcome to help with ELIJA's work. It offers some unique programs to receive donations through credit cards and the tax advantage of donating appreciated stock. Those wishing to donate can also take advantage of ELIJA's program of shopping online, whereby certain familiar stores contribute a portion of your purchase to support ELIJA. Those wishing to donate may receive instructions on the many ways to do so by visiting their website

The Nassau Suffolk Chapter of the Autism Society of America also assisted this colorful holiday program. This organization is involved in many activities for autistic children such as visits to the Garden City Children's Museum, the Atlantis Marine World Aquarium in Riverhead as well as programs teaching youngsters such skills as swimming and roller-skating. For further information, visit their web site at These three organizations worked well together to provide a wonderful afternoon of memories for the youngsters and their families who braved the chilly afternoon in the magnificent setting of the grounds of Castlegould. Logo
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