A Man And His Horse
What 21-year-old Joe Penzel can’t put into words, he expresses through action. The Huntington resident, who is autistic, won first place at the annual Hampton Horse Show Classic, and an unspeakable bond between man, horse and trainer has led him to flourish as a rider, athlete and young adult.
He sat tall on his beloved training horse, Dino, as he performed a perfect walk, trot, cantor and figure eight at the Aug. 26 show. Last year, he won second place.
Unfazed by the pressure to enhance his previous record, Joe performed with poise and grace that Saturday afternoon, his parents, Fred and Wendy Penzel, said.
“It was dead perfect,” Fred said. “I’ve always had high expectations for him and he always seems to rise to the occasion.”
Joe beat four others to take home the first-place ribbon and silver cup, earning 21 out of 24 points; while the second place rider trailed him with 14 total points.
The competition is through the Long Island Horse Show Series for Riders with Disabilities (LIHSSRD) organization, which has been given a special day at the Hampton Classic for the last eight years, Penzel’s parents said.
According to his parents, Joe has been riding since he was 5 years old. He got his start at HorseAbility, a riding program in which students with special needs work with qualified riding instructors to achieve a therapeutic goal.
HorseAbility was first launched at the Thomas’s School of Horsemanship on Round Swamp Road in Melville, but relocated last year to a site on the SUNY Old Westbury campus.
That’s where he met his instructor of nine years, Dina Asaro, who he continued his relationship with at the Sweet Hills Heart to Heart program last year.
“He respects her confidence in him and she treats him like an adult,” Wendy said of Asaro. “She treats him like a son.”
Asaro even helped Joe learn how to jump on a horse.
“He makes riding look very easy, and riding is not easy,” his mother said with a laugh.
Joe inspired his parents to take riding classes with him and, although they did not find riding to be their calling, the most important lesson after each session is always how to better connect with their son.
“It’s hard to be autistic because we’re always trying to bring him into our world and some of that is mystifying for him, but he always puts in his best effort,” his mother said.
Asaro said Joe is not only like a son to her, but he has also been her teacher.
“In order to get through to him I had to simplify all the things I wanted him to achieve… Once he and the horse taught me that, it became such an amazing relationship… The love and trust that grew between us is like nothing else in the world,” Asaro said. “We share one skin.”
Like Joe, and many other young people with different abilities, horses don’t need to speak to express how they feel, Asaro said, making for the perfect, unspoken understanding between Joe and his horse.
“They have to show you what they feel, and when a horse shows you that they like you or love you, you know that you are truly loved, without a question or a doubt,” Asaro said.
Seeing how their son connects with horses and with the world around him has also been a learning experience for Joe’s parents, who are both psychologists. Although neither Fred nor Wendy work with children with disabilities, the lessons they’ve learned from their son have made them better parents and psychologists, the pair said.
“It’s improved his self confidence… He doesn’t like talking but he will perform on stage and forget the crowd. He’s not self conscious and not afraid of what other people think,” his mother said.
Joe not only excels on horseback, but also in ice hockey, skiing and ice skating. He put performed at last year’s Dix Hills Holiday Ice Show, skis with his family and plays for the Stride travel ice hockey team.
And, in his 16 years of riding, Joe has only fallen off the horse once.
Now, the Huntington High School graduate holds down a job at a graphic design and printing company.
“Our philosophy is not to make him do anything but to present him with opportunities… It’s always good to have high expectations for special people, and just like everyone else let them have a chance to show you what they’re good at,” his father said.