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Horse riding program honored for HOPE Week

NEW YORK -- To ask Flying Manes Therapeutic Riding founder Stefanie Dwyer about her favorite part of the Yankees' surprise HOPE Week visit on Monday was to ask for a recap of the entire day.

Forget the $10,000 check for the nonprofit organization or the bag of Yankees-themed baby gifts for the Dwyers, who had their first child June 16. Dwyer instead rattled off every moment with the children that stood out from the first of five Yankees community outreach events scheduled this week, from the first appearance of Eric Chavez, Jayson Nix, Mark Teixeira, Larry Rothschild and Jenny Steinbrenner, to their helping during lessons, to sharing lunch with the students afterward at the Riverdale Equestrian Center in the Bronx.

"We didn't exactly know what it all meant," said Bricklin Dwyer, Stefanie's husband and Flying Manes co-founder, who learned the Yankees would honor the three-year-old program about two months ago. "This is exceeding any of our expectations. It's pretty remarkable."

It was a sentiment echoed by the Yankees representatives, who led the horses out of their stables, then assisted in riding lessons for the group of eight children that deal with physical, cognitive or emotional challenges.

"I own horses and I'm afraid to get up on them, so the courage they have to just jump right up, I have respect for that," said Chavez, whose wife trains horses. "They have no fear."

The program fosters that fearlessness and confidence in the riders and then translates to their life away from Flying Manes, which runs three eight-week programs a year with lessons on Saturday mornings.

"There's a huge sense of trust they need to develop, because a lot of them are very small, and the horses, even if they're ponies, from their perspective are very big," said Stefanie Dwyer. "Developing that sense of trust and 'OK, I can move around the horse. I can take care of them and I don't have to be scared' -- that's a huge step and that turns into confidence."

Most of the riders are about 8 or 9 years old, and Flying Manes has had more than 100 students go through the program. A few graduated to taking mainstream equestrian lessons.

They gathered in the riding ring Monday afternoon, when the Yankees led the horses from the stable, and the smiles quickly became just a little bit bigger. Lessons continued as usual, with the Yankees leading the horses and riders around the ring, or holding the horses steady while the students groomed them.

Some students even wore Steinbrenner's 2009 World Series ring as they pet the horses.

"This is probably the best day of my life," said 8-year-old Michael Russo.

Nine-year-old Owen Atkins had the biggest smile, which became even bigger when Teixeira invited every student and their families to that evening's game against the Indians to watch batting practice from the field. Unfortunately, BP was rained out.

Atkins spent his entire lesson with Teixeira by his side, and there were no hard feelings from the first baseman when Atkins told him Derek Jeter was his favorite player.

"I get that a lot," Teixeira laughed.

Atkins told Teixeira the story of watching New York's three-grand slam game against the A's last season at home with his dad, Dan, a lifelong Yankee fan who proudly looked on.

"[Teixeira] was such a good conversationalist, bringing Owen out of his shell," said Dan Atkins, whose wife found Flying Manes after researching ways to get Owen, who has spent most of his life in a wheelchair with cerebral palsy, out of the house.

Atkins' weekly riding lessons are one of the few times he is out of a wheelchair, along with his daily exercising and swimming with his dad.

"It's like you're a part of something, it's like you're part of a team," Dan Atkins said. "When it comes down to it, that's what you get out of sports. That's what I remember about sports. Am I going to remember that hit that I made? No, I'm going to remember the ride on the bus with the friends, the community. That's the one thing that kids with physical disabilities unfortunately miss out on -- the community. It teaches so much about life, so they make this very social. Other kids are there and they play games, so you feel like you're part of a group."

The Yankees reached out Monday to make the students at Flying Manes part of their group. The players get to pick which event they participate in, and this one stood out to each. Chavez owns horses. Nix grew up in Texas around them. Teixeira enjoys animals and children. Rothschild brought his two daughters, and Steinbrenner gladly sacrificed a pair of white pants as the horse she held kicked up mud.

Dwyer recapped the entire day when asked about her favorite part, and the Yankees returned to their clubhouse in the Bronx to do the same.

"That's one of the most fun things about HOPE Week," Teixeira said. "We go back and we talk about it with all the guys: 'This is what I got to do today, what are you doing tomorrow?' We tell stories about the kids and it's a lot of fun."

Eric Chavez, Jayson Nix, Mark Teixeira