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Horses That Heal

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Horses have always been associated with work, but no work is as profound as the kind that happens for the children and adults at Windrush Farm Therapeutic Equitation, Inc. With a mission of “expanding the personal, emotional, and physical boundaries of all who ride and work with us,” Windrush Farm uses its horses and staff to transform the lives of those with disabilities, proving that horses are here for more than just riding.


Located in 200 woody acres and open fields in Boxford and North Andover, Massachusetts, Windrush Farm blossomed from Marjorie Kittredge’s own work doing therapeutic riding in Europe. She brought her gift across the pond in 1964 to start therapeutic riding with a small group of students with emotional challenges and learning disabilities at the Gifford School located in Cambridge. Kittredge purchased the Windrush property and became a founding member of the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association, Inc. (NARHA), in 1969. Since then, nearly 800 centers and 38,000 individuals have benefited from therapeutic riding, hippotherapy, and equine-assisted psychotherapy in the United States and Canada.


I spoke with Gina Armano at Windrush, who started as a volunteer and grew to her current position as Volunteer Coordinator in the last five years. Gina was simply looking for a place to board her horse and didn’t even know about Windrush, but once she walked onto their fields she knew she belonged, so she signed up immediately and started to volunteer.


Healing Programs
While most of Windrush’s 250 volunteers and patients are women and girls, they have a few boys that ride for therapy. Most visitors come for learning disabilities, physical challenges, and emotional issues. For those who have disabilities that are too severe to ride, they can work in the hippotherapy program. Hippotherapy is a specialized form of therapy where the child or adult is placed on a horse’s back and the instructor uses the horse’s movement to address the disabilities in patients with neuromusculoskeletal dysfunction. Others come to help groom the horses for therapy.


“We found that is has affected people’s ability to expand their horizons and the quality of their lives,” Gina said in a phone interview.


Helping Children and Adults
Gina told me that while they work with the physically and emotionally disabled, as well as those with traumatic brain injuries, many of the children are on the autism spectrum with sensory integration issues, Asperger’s Syndrome, and kids who are insular and low-functioning.


With these clients, it’s the tactile that works—the smell, the rhythm, or the movement when they are on the horses backs.


Gina recalls some accomplishments that have moved her over the years. “Some parents say their children couldn’t connect, but once on the horse, they were able to attend and focus to a certain degree, [in] a way they hadn’t been [able to] before,” she says.


Gina spoke of one adolescent boy with Asperger’s Syndrome. He was very intelligent and a gentle soul, but when entering the awkward teenage years, his social shortcomings would become more pronounced. Working with the horses became his passion.


“His mother couldn’t believe how he connected with the horses. Where he can’t relate with people, all of that energy goes into the horses. He started riding, but he also wanted to come in another day to help with grooming and start working in the Barn Buddy program. He built his confidence and skill and progressed to working with students. Now he does barn chores, works alongside kids his own age, and understands his role by being able to perform independently. It’s been easy to follow his progression and see what the horses have done for him.”


It’s programs like the Barn Buddy program that give teens and adults a place to foster growth. It includes helping with stable chores, leading horses in from the field, feedings, grooming, and cleaning stalls.


“It strengthens them internally, which has to affect who they are and how they perceive themselves. It’s a haven for those kids at the barn. It’s something to come back to after a day of possibly getting emotionally built up, and it’s supportive because they’re getting immediate positive feedback from the animals.”


Horses for Heroes
Horses for Heroes started as a pilot program as an idea from NAHRA to reach out to the veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s a scholarship program to help veterans start riding and can accommodate amputees, veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, traumatic brain injuries, and spinal cord injuries. The ultimate goal is to bring able-bodied veterans from previous wars in to help veterans in this program.


“The veterans’ hospitals are so overwhelmed right now about how to best serve them to get them back in the world, so we wanted to create something like a recreational program that hadn’t been pushed into the therapy program yet.”


Gina and the Windrush staff are in touch with local politicians and veterans groups to spread the word.


“When there are emotional disabilities, like PTSD, it’s not looked at in the same way as if it were a physical injury. Those systems aren’t in place yet; it’s an uphill battle to get those kinds of services for these people.”


But thanks to Gina and the volunteers at Windrush, there is hope that help for our nation’s heroes is on its way, with a few horses in the stalls waiting to help work their magic.


Photo courtesy of Windrush Farm.

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