James Phyfe enjoys a nuzzle with a special friend at Spirit's Promise Equine Rescue in Baiting Hollow, as Youth Program Coordinator Emma Licata looks on. Photo: Alek Lewis

On a Sound Avenue ranch in Baiting Hollow, four-and-a-half year old James Phyfe of Selden feeds the goats, snuggles the horses and pets the turkey of the Spirit’s Promise Equine Rescue Program.

“I like to be here,” he said, after spending his afternoon at the ranch.

The non-profit uses horses and other barn animals to help people cope with grief and mental health issues. They have recently expanded their programs to include therapies for children like James, who have special needs. They are hosting a free open house event this Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. to introduce members of the special needs community to the ranch and its animals. 

“We rescue horses and we put them into the herd to rehabilitate them. And then people come to the farm and we help people that are in trauma and grief — and now special needs,” said Marisa Striano, the organization’s founder and executive director. “Thank goodness for Emma Licata, she’s the one who brought this here. She’s got a gift.”

Spirit’s Promise Youth Program Coordinator Emma Licata and James Phyfe with Major, a retired NYPD horse. Photo:Alek Lewis

Licata is Spirit’s Promise’s youth program coordinator and a student at St. Joseph’s College. She started working as a farm hand a year ago and took the reins of the special needs program.

“In our programs we like for everybody to learn a little bit about how to care for our animals. That’s because most of our animals have ended up here because people actually didn’t know what it takes to care for a farm animal and just how much work it is,” Licata said.

“Another thing that we will definitely do a lot of is groom the horses. That’s because grooming is proven to slow people’s heart rates and it’s believed that your heart rate will sync up with the horse’s,” Licata said. “It’s a good way to start the program because then we can all get in a good headspace and we can focus together.”

Striano said the ranch calms and relieves anxieties for many people, leaving them with “an unbelievable feeling of peace.” 

This stands true for James and his mother, Kimberly Phyfe, who found out about the ranch during the summer through Facebook, and have been coming nearly every Friday since. 

She said James, who has cerebral palsy, obsessive compulsive disorder and is on the autism spectrum, gets excited every Friday, recalling his favorite animals on the ranch, like Larry the turkey, Major, a retired New York City police horse, and Odin, a young steer.

James Phyfe and his mother Kimberly share a laugh with “Major” at Spirit’s Promise Equine Rescue. Photo: Alek Lewis

“He just loves the animals, and they love him and they follow him. I’ve never seen that before,” Striano said.

Striano said that the horses match well with James, because they have “autistic qualities.” “They like everything the same, they love routine, they don’t like loud noises, they want to know what is going to happen,” she said.

“Everybody thinks that autistic children have trouble empathizing, and trouble connecting, and trouble being affectionate — and that couldn’t be further from the truth with James,” Phyfe said. 

“He has so much love in his heart not just for people, but also for animals, and we really found that out here.”

Phyfe said Licata is James’ best friend. Everybody on the ranch holds that they have a “special connection.”

“He goes to school every day feeling worried that he’s going to be judged or rejected – and he has never felt that once here,” Phyfe said. “ We show up and he feels loved — not just by the incredible staff, who are beyond patient in working with him — but also by the animals. These animals just love and accept him for who he is and he has had an incredible time.”

Registration is required to attend Saturday’s special needs open house event. You can register online or by emailing Emma Licata at Emma@spiritspromiserescue.org.

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Alek Lewis is a lifelong Riverhead resident and a 2021 graduate of Stony Brook University’s School of Communication and Journalism. Previously, he served as news editor of Stony Brook’s student newspaper, The Statesman, and was a member of the campus’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Email: alek@riverheadlocal.com