Ironstone Therapy

P.Leyne - B.S., July'13(2)A nonprofit affiliate of Challenge Unlimited, Ironstone Therapy employs licensed professional physical and occupational therapists and speech/language pathologists who provide therapeutic intervention. Ironstone Therapy works under a management agreement for the use of Challenge Unlimited’s horses, facility and staff expertise. The administrative and professional staffs of both organizations work together to best address the needs of each individual.

Ironstone Therapy is governed by a Board of Directors.

The chairman is Jim Gleason, MS, PT, associate director of the University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities (UCEDD) at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver Center. He is also an instructor in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

Members include Dr. Peter Raffalli, MD, FAAP, attending physician for child neurology at Children’s Hospital Boston and the instructor of neurology at Harvard Medical School.


Elaine Francis, Ed. D., board secretary, was named the first dean of education at Fitchburg State University in 2003 and also served as chairwoman of both the university’s Special Education Department and its moderate and severe disabilities graduate programs.

Executive Director Deedee O’Brien has been a leader of the nonprofit Ironstone Therapy and Challenge Unlimited since their foundings. She and Ironstone Farm have received many honors for their work, with O’Brien named the 2013 woman of the year by Girls Inc.

The therapy
Hippotherapy is defined as “therapy using the movement of the horse,” which is the primary purpose of the Ironstone Therapy program. For a person straddling a walking horse, the movement of the horse provides the sensation of walking and moving forward through space, and the rider needs to respond to these movements. This means that a person who cannot walk or who has difficulty walking can experience the sensation of walking and respond to those movements simply by riding a horse.

Ironstone’s therapists use this unique motion to help clients improve balance and coordination, increase muscle tone, and make gains in strength and stamina – all of which are difficult to achieve in the classroom or clinic. For the client therapy is effective and fun.

Z.Li-Khan, Oct'12(3)
Referral, documentation and progression
Ninety percent of Ironstone Therapy’s clients are children who are referred by physicians, Early Intervention programs, public schools and word of mouth. Following referral, a therapy evaluation is conducted and a plan of care determined. Progress is carefully monitored, documented and sent to the referring physician or agency monthly. If a child achieves predetermined goals, recommendations are made for more extensive therapy or discharge, in which case the decision can be made for the client to continue riding horses as a recreational therapy in the Challenge Unlimited program.

Early interventionsponsor a child 6

Ironstone Therapy contracts with nine Early Intervention programs throughout the Merrimack Valley, Greater Boston and the North Shore of Massachusetts. Early Intervention is organized by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH) and provides a variety of services for children from birth to 3 years of age who are diagnosed with disability. Parents of young children have advocated that hippotherapy be provided by Early Intervention and this was approved by DPH in 2001. Today children are referred to Ironstone Therapy as young as nine months of age so they can get the beneficial movement of the horse at this critical stage of development.
Early intervention services are funded through health insurance and DPH support. For more information about Early Intervention on the website, click here.

For a list of Ironstone Farm affiliates, click here.

History of Ironstone Therapy and Ironstone Farm

1960s – 70s Richard Donovan builds farm, and breeds, raises and trains thoroughbred horses.
1970s Donovans begin offering field trips to Ironstone Farm for groups of children with special needs.
1983 Incorporates Challenge Unlimited as a non-profit charitable organization to offer therapeutic riding to individuals with disability. All services are donated by Ironstone Farm to the 25 clients.
1985 Challenge Unlimited receives tax exempt status with the IRS as a 501( c)(3) organization.
1986 Establishes programs with National Birth Defects Center/Genesis Fund.
1987 Establishes association with Massachusetts Special Olympics.
1988 Challenge Unlimited establishes lease arrangement with Ironstone Farm to enable programs to grow.
1988 CU becomes first Massachusetts organization to host Special Olympics Equestrian Event.
1989 With 200 clients now being served, organization establishes Annual Yearbook Fundraiser that riders can use to help raise money for their riding.
1991 Organizes Therapeutic Riding Research Committee.
1994 Richard Donovan builds Physical Therapy Building for Challenge Unlimited programs. Initial pilot therapy programs were born.
1996 Signs first public school contracts with Lowell for physical therapy and occupational therapy services. Farms programs are now serving 400.
1997 — Establishes Ironstone Therapy as medically-based physical and occupational therapy service provider.
1998 — Incorporates Ironstone Therapy as non-profit 501( c)(3) organization.
1999 Now serving 700 clients, Challenge Unlimited at Ironstone Farm begins plans for expansion of facilities and programs to support future generations.
2000 — Begins contracts with Early Intervention and numerous educational and medical providers.
2000 Massachusetts Special Olympics Hall of Fame inducts organization.
2001 Challenge Unlimited purchases Ironstone Farm, including barn, arena, farmhouse and 14 acres, from Dick Donovan.
2005 Lowell Spinners Charity of the Year
2007 Opens doors on new 80- by 200-foot indoor arena built entirely through donations.
2008 Closes on Mass Development tax exempt bond enabling the purchase of abutting home and four acres for development of after-school programs.
2009 Launches Equine Encounter Program and begins affiliation with Dana Farber Cancer Institute to support people with cancer.
2010 Establishes affiliation with Massachusetts Adoption Resource Exchange to offer special annual event; chosen as the three-year focus charity of the Kiwanis Club of Greater Lawrence.
2011 Establishes partnership with Lowell General Hospital to provide services to people with cancer. Receives Enterprise Bank’s Celebrate Excellence Non-Profit of the Year Award.
2013 Launches Equine Encounter Program for US veterans, and campaign to secure the continued growth and future of Ironstone Farm.

Our Affiliates

Traditional healing. More horsepower.

Ironstone Farm is home to Challenge Unlimited, Inc.(est 1983) and Ironstone Therapy, Inc. (est. 1998), two nonprofit organizations established to provide a variety of services for people with and without disabilities. Both organizations use horses and the wholesome environment of a working farm, while involving people in serving others through volunteering.

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