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For these students, horseback riding brings special benefits

By Gene Cassidy
Globe Correspondent / February 16, 2012
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The minute Jona Ghelli arrives with her father at the horse barn in Hopkinton, she heads directly for Karina, an Icelandic mare that is among the horses she has ridden nearly every week since 2008 at Equine Partners.

Because of their calm temperaments, Icelandic horses are well suited to provide therapeutic riding for people like 18-year-old Jona, who has microcephaly, which causes physical and mental delays in her development.

As Jona rides with the help of two volunteer sidewalkers and instructor Nicole Majkut, she smiles. Her father, Paul, leans on the corral fence.

“People say, ‘How much benefit can horse riding do?’ ’’ he says. His daughter waves to him.

“She learned to wave by riding,’’ Paul said. “I don’t know. It’s amazing.’’

Paul Ghelli said horseback riding, which Jona has done for a total of nine years, motivates her. She’s less shy. As therapy and as fun, Paul says, it’s one of the best things she does.

“It’s probably the highlight of her week,’’ he says.

Located on East Main Street in Hopkinton, Equine Partners is run by Val LePage and Beth Timlege, both certified riding instructors.

It is one of a number of therapeutic riding programs in Boston suburbs that include Lovelane Special Needs Riding in Lincoln; BiNA Farm in Natick; Stonymeade Farm in Concord; Walnut Hill Horse Farm in Plainville; and Breezy Hill Farm in Holliston, where LePage and Timlege met and worked before starting their own business.

The benefits of therapeutic riding depend on the students, Timlege says. But alleviating anxiety, especially the anxiety of kids who have pain, or those who can see from those around them that they are different, ranks high on everybody’s list. The chance to have fun while gaining physical benefits is also important.

“They develop strength, core strength, fine motor skills,’’ Timlege says.

Cindy Burke directs the Therapeutic Riding Program at the University of New Hampshire.

“No one brags about visiting their therapist in an office, but they’re certainly pumped that they ride horses,’’ Burke says. A client who uses a wheelchair is not only able to move on his own atop a horse but towers over other people instead of constantly looking up at them, she adds.

The key therapeutic value of riding horses is probably best explained by Tim Shurtleff, the research chairman of the American Hippotherapy Association, a Colorado-based group. Shurtleff, an occupational therapist on the faculty of Washington University Medical School in St. Louis, compiles evidence for the medical community and insurance industry so they will incorporate hippotherapy into standard medical practice, as is done in Europe.

Hippotherapy, Shurtleff said, is more exacting than therapeutic riding in several aspects. Accompanied by an occupational therapist, physical therapist, or speech pathologist, hippotherapy uses horses as complex tools to enhance therapy.

Shurtleff refers to therapeutic riding as a sport, but he acknowledges that some of the same benefits, like improved balance, accrue in both cases.

Shurtleff’s description is a mix of scientific detail and almost slack-jawed wonderment at the relationship between children with handicaps and horses.

A child with autism thinks of a horse as magical, he said.

In Hopkinton, Equine Partners has about 30 students. They have six working therapy horses and four retired horses. LePage and Timlege have 30 volunteers. Majkut, also a certified riding instructor, and a teen who cleans the stalls on weekends are the paid employees. The students’ parents held a fund-raiser last year and have one planned for this fall.

Page and Timlege have full-time second jobs working with animals, LePage at Wellesley College and Timlege at Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine in Grafton. Equine Partners’ riding sessions cost $60.

“It’s a labor of love and a little bit of debt,’’ LePage says.

Breezy Hill Farm in Holliston has 10 horses for therapeutic riding on indoor or outdoor rings, according to director Donna Kramer. Five Breezy Hill instructors, including two occupational therapists and one physical therapist, teach riders with handicaps. There are about 25 volunteer sidewalkers and 57 riders, Kramer says.

BiNA Farm in Natick offers all its life-skills programs, like riding, dance, rock climbing, and art to parents, caregivers, and siblings to enjoy with special-needs children.

“Just about every program has a wait list,’’ says Debbie Sabin, the founder and executive director of Lovelane Stables in Lincoln, where LePage worked about 20 years ago. “The families want this.’’

Sabin is an occupational therapist but markets Lovelane’s services as therapeutic riding rather than hippotherapy.

The Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship’s website ( can direct visitors to camps and year-round schools where therapeutic riding is part of the curriculum. The American Hippotherapy Association, (, offers research and details on medical hippotherapy and has contact information for hippotherapists west of Boston.

At Equine Partners, Hopkinton’s Isabel Hart, a lifelong rider, said her daughter Stephanie, 20, who has cerebral palsy, has gone from being afraid of horses to riding for seven or eight years.

Stephanie, who does not walk without a companion keeping a hand on a belt around her waist, mounts the horse from a ramp. Today she rides in the corral. In spring, Stephanie goes trail riding.

“It’s not easy for kids like this to go for a walk in the woods,’’ Hart said.

Improving trunk and head stability for children with cerebral palsy is a specific benefit of riding that Shurtleff mentioned. Though hippotherapy is more directed than therapeutic riding, the parents at Equine Partners mention the same type of benefits.

Stephanie Hart doesn’t speak but commands Goldie, a retired brown mare from Amish country, with prodding, vocalizations, and shifting her weight in the saddle, which she holds onto with a solid steel bar attached to the front.

“We look for things from here to carry to the home environment,’’ Isabel Hart said. “There’s a lot of laughing and joy here.’’

Bella Scipione will mark her third birthday and first year of horse riding in April. In a bicycle helmet and flower-print jacket, she continues her mother’s family’s tradition of riding horses from a young age.

Volunteer Carrie Coverdale remembers when Bella, who has cerebral palsy, first came to the barn.

“The sidewalkers literally had to hold her on the horse,’’ she said. “Our arms would get so tired we switched sides every 10 minutes.’’

Bella now balances on the saddle enough that the sidewalkers keep close but don’t need to hold her in place.

Coverdale volunteered at the program for four months through her college service learning project, starting at the same time Bella started riding.

A year later, she’s still helping Bella.

“I couldn’t leave,’’ Coverdale said. “To see the changes in Bella is amazing.’’

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