News of the sale has sparked concern among advocates for the poor and disabled, as well as the equestrian community.
At a contentious township committee meeting last month, a former instructor at the center charged that board members had not been honest about their plans for the property and that a change in the organization's mission three years ago - to give nonhandicapped riders access - had led to financial problems.
"This is a unique facility because it was built as a therapeutic center for the disabled," said the former instructor, Valerie K. Flesch, who is also a local science teacher. "The community is upset that this important mission was entrusted to a board that is clearly interested in doing the opposite of what it was supposed to do."
An Atlantic County freeholder has pledged to "look into" the sale.
The center, tucked into a rural corner of this Atlantic County municipality, has always operated on a shoestring, say board members. It receives no government funds and, since the economy began its decline, private donations have decreased.
All the bills get paid, said a center official, but operating on a $250,000 annual budget has been a struggle. Such a struggle, said board president Anne Cancelmo, that the board agreed to disband.
Certified therapists are paid $5 to $10 an hour; other expenses associated with the therapeutic programs are partially covered by charities, including United Way.
Each year, about 1,000 clients with disabilities - from amputees to autistic children - have been referred by medical providers such as AtlantiCare or hospice programs. For some, insurance covers the expense.
"That farm was the best thing that happened to me when I was diagnosed," said David Betson, 63, a multiple sclerosis patient from Galloway Township who attended sessions two years ago.
"It took my mind off my other treatments and gave me something to look forward to. I'm very sad that it's not going to be there anymore, because of all the good it's done me and everyone else."
Cancelmo, the board president, denied that providing access to the nondisabled equestrians for a fee had caused financial problems. It provided revenue that "extended the life" of the farm, she said.
For the enthusiastic Atlantic City children who attended camp last week, "this experience is beyond priceless. . . . It plants a seed that there is something for them beyond the violence and drugs and other problems they see every day," said Katie Fourqurean, 30, a social worker with the outreach program Hope for Atlantic City, operated by an Atlantic City church. Much of its work is with immigrant families from countries including Ghana, Liberia, and Nigeria, she said.
"It's an important moment in their lives," agreed Cancelmo as she and Fourqurean watched the children, ages 4 to 14, ride in formation around an indoor arena. The camp was underwritten by a $4,000 grant from Ocean City Home Bank.
These days, planning at the center is on a moment-by-moment basis. (Those limos? Renting them was cheaper than hiring a bus, Cancelmo said.)
The facility could close in a month - settlement is set for Sept. 7. In the meantime, dozens of volunteers help run programs and care for the 18 horses. The small, part-time staff puts in nearly as many unpaid hours as paid. And board members tear up when they talk about the transformations they have seen.
"We all agreed we would continue as usual until the sale agreement is signed on the dotted line," Cancelmo said.
After the sale, she said, the organization will pay off its $125,000 mortgage and other bills. What's left will go to charity.
Located about 15 miles from Atlantic City, the center was founded "on a dream" in 1988 by Sue Adams, an instructor of therapeutic riding, when the concept of horses as an aid to those with physical and occupational disabilities was still evolving. Atlantic Riding was the region's first such facility. Now there is one next door - Rolling Seas Farm, operated by Adams - and several more in South Jersey.
Adams was the center's director until five years ago when she was dismissed by the board for undisclosed reasons. She declined to comment on the center, citing terms of her termination agreement. At the recent township committee meeting, she said she was not involved in the sale. It is unclear whether her farm will step in to accommodate the riding center's clients.
The decision to pack it in was reached after the facility received an unsolicited, somewhat lowball offer for the facility, Cancelmo said. Board members including Mary Ann Wagner, the property's listing agent, did research and set a $410,000 price based on comparable sales.
Wagner, of Keller Williams Realty in Margate, will take a reduced commission, Cancelmo said. Wagner could not be reached for comment.
In the last year, a comparably sized horse facility in the county sold for about $400,000. Others have been priced at $180,000 to $1.4 million, according to a multiple listing service. The land where the center is located is restricted to single-family dwelling or therapeutic horse farm use, according to zoning records. It cannot be subdivided.
After the farm was put up for sale June 22, a bidder offered the full asking price, Cancelmo said.
"I think that dream that someone had about this place years ago has been fulfilled. The work that is done here is so important to so many different people," she said last week as she watched the Atlantic City children receive instruction in trotting techniques.
"You can see the transformations of people working with horses happen almost overnight," Cancelmo said.
While she spoke, tiny Jerusha Gbayee sat tall in the saddle and smiled proudly atop a cocoa-colored horse that circled the arena. Cancelmo watched with tears in her eyes.
Only the day before, the 9-year-old girl, whose family emigrated from Liberia, had been afraid to go near the steed. Now she was enjoying the opportunity to ride.
"I want to do it again," Jerusha said.
Contact Jacqueline L. Urgo
at 609-652-8382 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Jersey Shore blog "Downashore" at www.philly.com/downashore.