When Marisa Striano purchased a rundown horse farm and former bed-and-breakfast on Sound Avenue in Riverhead nearly a decade ago, her intent was to make a positive difference in the world.
Unnerved by the stresses and pain consistently splashed across the news, the Long Island native, who holds a degree in psychology from Massachusetts’ Stonehill College, sought to combine her clinical and equestrian background to foster hope and healing.
“I got so tired of people not paying it forward; it seemed like we were living in a selfish society and it was a turning point for me,” said Striano, who has been riding horses since she was 8 years old. “I thought people must be feeling so much sadness and I wanted to do my part to help heal.”
Striano, along with her children, Jessie Grace Kordich and Pete Siegel, spent the first several months fixing up the stables and the property’s ailing barns prior to launching Spirit’s Promise Equine Rescue and Rehabilitation Program with six horses, including her own rescues, Joker and Spirit, who inspired the name.
The program initially started as a riding academy, but quickly evolved into another type of educational facility, teaching people how to cope with addiction, the death of a loved one, a life-altering prognosis such as Alzheimer’s disease and those seeking a new path to personal empowerment through its grief counseling and life-coaching workshops.
The 20 horses at Spirit’s Promise are uniquely suited to help the vulnerable. At the three-acre farm, each was granted a new lease on life after being abused, neglected or unwanted. In turn, the rehabilitated horses now help people find new beginnings. The nonprofit’s mission statement — “Help us, help horses, help people” — stems from the idea of continuously paying it forward.
“The horses are such empathic animals,” Striano said. “We use on-the-ground equine therapy that connects people who are in emotional trouble with highly sensitive and vulnerable animals. We nurture the horses so we can nurture people.”
Certified through Koelle Institute for Equus Coaching, Striano indefinitely halted riding lessons and began implementing team-based equine assisted bereavement programs in collaboration with East End Hospice in 2015. The goal was to give participants a new way to become more connected with themselves through guidance and feedback from social workers, fellow group members and the horses, which serve as mirrors to what is being expressed, both verbally and non-verbally, Striano said. The process helps people who are feeling disconnected, overwhelmed or misunderstood or are struggling with self-expression after loss or trauma.
“It is the best medicine I ever had,” said Wading River resident Minna Waldeck, whose 26-year-old son, Michael, suddenly and unexpectedly died nearly six years ago. “When you’re next to this 1,000-pound animal, you have to learn to be in the moment and learn to trust. It gives your brain a break for a while and you learn about yourself and how you handle situations.”
Waldeck joined the program at Spirit’s Promise more than two years ago after trying traditional therapy.
“I felt such a connection with Marisa and the horses,” she said. “Through the exercises, we learn to return to a calm and peaceful place. The horses mimic and take in emotions. It makes your heart light for a little while.
Introducing life-coaching sessions was a natural next step for Striano. Many members of the bereavement programs requested the workshops to focus on self-growth and empowerment. The classes, typically hosted one-on-one or in private groups, aim to give participants insight into their true nature. It’s designed to help anyone, whether they suffer from anger or anxiety, reach a new level of inner peace, Striano said.
“People have been taught to think in terms of ‘right’ and ‘wrong.’ Horses only reflect what the person is feeling in that present moment,” she said. “They make positive and negative communication patterns become clear very quickly, which enables people to gain self awareness of how they are projecting themselves to the world.”
It was an experience Agnes Percoco of Port Jefferson witnessed firsthand. After losing a son, Percoco began attending grief therapy at Spirit’s Promise before enrolling in life coaching at the farm last year.
“For me, it was a combination of grief and life coaching,” she said. “It was empowering. When I was in my session, the horse slid across the ring, and I didn’t move or react. I didn’t run toward the gate and I realized that is how I handle chaos: I just stand still. It was eye-opening because I didn’t realize that I bury my emotions. I didn’t know that about myself for 17 years since my son passed away. It literally helped me move.”
Spirit’s Promise has helped hundreds of people work through weighty and emotional trials. The horses help bring light and joy, not only in times of trouble. The nonprofit, which is maintained with help from volunteers and sustained through donations, opens its gates to the public each weekend during the summer months, allowing people of all ages an opportunity to explore the farm and meet the animals. In addition to the 14 large horses and six miniature horses, Spirit’s Promise is home to burros, chickens, ducks, turkeys and a pig. There is also a flower farm onsite where passersby can pick a fresh-cut bouquet to bring home.
On Fridays and Saturdays, Spirit’s Promise hosts American Country Night, drawing fun-loving line dancers to the farm’s entertainment center, a converted rustic red potato barn decorated with country adornments. Through September, the twice-weekly events offer live music and a food truck, with the proceeds benefiting the ongoing efforts at the farm.
“It is a transformative place with a lot of love,” Striano said. “I’m trying to help people live their best lives.”
Spirit’s Promise is located at 2746 Sound Ave, Riverhead