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At Back in the Saddle Equine Therapy Center in Hopkinton, students of all levels find strength and fun

  • Max Morrissette, 4, rides his horse taught by Kathy Mauzerall, left, OT-R in the SpiritHorse autism intervention program and led by Ariel Huffman, center, and Max's aide Kaite Martinelli. (GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff)

    Max Morrissette, 4, rides his horse taught by Kathy Mauzerall, left, OT-R in the SpiritHorse autism intervention program and led by Ariel Huffman, center, and Max's aide Kaite Martinelli. (GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff)

  • Max Morrissette, 4, rides his horse at the BITS farm in Hopkinton.<br/> (GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff)

    Max Morrissette, 4, rides his horse at the BITS farm in Hopkinton.
    (GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff)

  • Brian Balkus, 48, ascends to the back of Rosie the horse with the help of Back in the Saddle Equine Therapy Center instructor Ariel Huffman. Balkus has spina bifida and attends therapeutic riding classes at the Hopkinton-based facility. (CASEY McDERMOTT / Monitor staff)

    Brian Balkus, 48, ascends to the back of Rosie the horse with the help of Back in the Saddle Equine Therapy Center instructor Ariel Huffman. Balkus has spina bifida and attends therapeutic riding classes at the Hopkinton-based facility. (CASEY McDERMOTT / Monitor staff)

  • Max Morrissette, 4, rides his horse taught by Kathy Mauzerall, left, OT-R in the SpiritHorse autism intervention program. (GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff)

    Max Morrissette, 4, rides his horse taught by Kathy Mauzerall, left, OT-R in the SpiritHorse autism intervention program. (GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff)

  • Max Morrissette, 4, rides his horse taught by Kathy Mauzerall, OT-R in the SpiritHorse autism intervention program and led by Ariel Huffman and Max's aide Kaite Martinelli at the BITS farm in Hopkinton.

    Max Morrissette, 4, rides his horse taught by Kathy Mauzerall, OT-R in the SpiritHorse autism intervention program and led by Ariel Huffman and Max's aide Kaite Martinelli at the BITS farm in Hopkinton.

  • Max Morrissette, 4, rides his horse taught by Kathy Mauzerall, left, OT-R in the SpiritHorse autism intervention program and led by Ariel Huffman, center, and Max's aide Kaite Martinelli. (GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff)
  • Max Morrissette, 4, rides his horse at the BITS farm in Hopkinton.<br/> (GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff)
  • Brian Balkus, 48, ascends to the back of Rosie the horse with the help of Back in the Saddle Equine Therapy Center instructor Ariel Huffman. Balkus has spina bifida and attends therapeutic riding classes at the Hopkinton-based facility. (CASEY McDERMOTT / Monitor staff)
  • Max Morrissette, 4, rides his horse taught by Kathy Mauzerall, left, OT-R in the SpiritHorse autism intervention program. (GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff)
  • Max Morrissette, 4, rides his horse taught by Kathy Mauzerall, OT-R in the SpiritHorse autism intervention program and led by Ariel Huffman and Max's aide Kaite Martinelli at the BITS farm in Hopkinton.

Last week was a big one for Max Morrissette. He had just turned 4, for starters, and was all smiles when he arrived at Back in the Saddle Equine Therapy Center in Hopkinton for his weekly Thursday lesson.

When Max started at Back in the Saddle – BITS, for short – a few months ago, he spent his half-hour sessions with a shetland pony named Babe. But he was older and taller now, and that meant he’d get to meet a new friend.

“You’ll be riding the big pony today,” instructor Kathy Mauzerall called out from the stable toward Max and Kaite Martinelli, Max’s applied behavioral analysis therapist from the Ready, Set, Connect! autism treatment program at Crotched Mountain Rehabilitation Center.

Out walked an auburn-hued companion named Rainbow Dash.

“But first,” Mauzerall told Max, “you need a helmet.”

Max’s therapist turned toward him and held out the iPad she had been carrying. She asked whether he could tell the device what he needed, gently guiding the boy’s hands to the screen.

“I need . . .” the speakers murmured, pausing for a moment while Max and Martinelli found the right button to push next, “my helmet.”

Max can’t speak on his own, and his lessons are part of BITS’s SpiritHorse Autism Intervention program. The TouchChat app Max used to call for his helmet – and later, to tell Rainbow Dash to “halt” or “walk on” – is critical outside of his lessons, too.

His mother, Kelly Morrissette, said the app can be programmed to allow him to communicate in different settings. And since Max began at BITS, Kelly said he’s been noticeably more motivated to use it when he needs to call for something at home, instead of getting upset or trying to get an item on his own. It didn’t hurt, either, that Max loved animals even before he started riding.

“We thought this would be more interactive, something he would enjoy,” Kelly said, recalling her impression of the program when someone at Ready, Set, Connect! recommended it. “It’s different than classroom settings.”

That’s exactly what BITS Director Pauline Meridien had hoped to provide when she founded the nonprofit equine therapy center about a decade ago. Outside of the SpiritHorse program for those who are on the autism spectrum, the center also offers therapeutic riding lessons for anxiety and depression, brain injuries, cerebral palsy, down syndrome and post-traumatic stress disorder, plus more. There are also programs for seniors, veterans and others, and vocational education and Equine Assisted Learning programs designed to give someone work experience by helping out around the farm.

The BITS herd includes horses of all shapes: a friendly quarter horse named Rosie, a sturdy Haflinger gelding named Gideon, two miniature horses named Cover Girl and Ginger (who sometimes act as “spokes-horses” for BITS), among others.

This, too, ties into the mission at BITS. Working with horses of varying sizes and abilities helps show students that “there isn’t a right or wrong horse” – the nutrition and needs of one breed might be different from those of another, Meridien said, and that’s okay.

“You can get kids into the idea that your body has got certain things about it that are unique,” she explained. “And if you can find work for that body that suits that body type, that’s the happiest thing you can do.”

Less judgment, more fun

The center caters to those of all ages – “2 to 92,” Meridien said – and its staff tries not to turn anyone away. Financial help is provided whenever possible, and class fees ($35 to $70 per hour, depending on the program, free to veterans and “uniformed professionals”) are offered on a sliding scale.

The instructors bring a mix of therapeutic experience to the program. Meridien and Mauzerall are certified through the Texas-based SpiritHorse International training program. Mauzerall has been an occupational therapist since 1993, and she’s also certified in hippotherapy, therapy that “utilizes equine movement,” according to the American Hippotherapy Association. Melissa LoVetere, who works primarily with the vocational education and equine-assisted activities, has experience working in special education and is pursuing certification through Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International. Ariel Huffman, who teaches therapeutic riding and other lessons, is PATH-certified and studied equine therapy at Pennsylvania’s Wilson College.

BITS instructors keep track of students’ progress on paper with weekly reports and individualized plans developed as needed with teachers or medical professionals, Huffman said. In her experience, this kind of therapy has a wide range of benefits.

“From an emotional standpoint, the horse isn’t judging you, the horse isn’t telling you to just get over it,” she said. “From a physical standpoint, sitting in a physical therapist’s office and being told to stretch – you know it’s going to hurt, you know you don’t want to do it.”

Students at BITS and other equine therapy programs, Huffman said, are less likely to think of it as a chore when they’re asked to steer a horse around a series of cones, to teach the horse to “count” by picking up numbered cards or to reach out from their perch on the saddle to grab a flag on a post. Plus, she added, “it’s more fun.”

A different trail for everyone

Lessons at BITS are tailored to fit each student, the instructors said.

Also Thursday, 21-year-old Kevin Stagakis divided a three-hour session between a therapeutic riding lesson and helping out around the farm as part of the vocational program: cleaning up a pasture, helping out around the barn and so on.

The tasks for that program aren’t particularly glamorous – they can include cleaning up a stable and shoveling horse manure, Meridien said – but students get written and verbal feedback, as they would at another job, and the BITS staff can provide recommendations to potential employers. These students are often guided by individualized education plans developed in conjunction with their schools, Meridien and other instructors said.

For 48-year-old Brian Balkus, another Thursday rider, the exercises at his lesson began even before he started riding a quarter horse named Rosie.

Balkus was born with spina bifida and has used a wheelchair for the last several years. Alternating between reaching up with his right and left hands while brushing Rosie helps him to stretch out and strengthen his upper body, as does reaching to pull the reins off of a hook or helping to pass off a saddle to someone else, who then hoists it onto the horse.

Thanks to a ramp and some assistance from Huffman, Balkus can climb onto Rosie from his wheelchair and position himself with two spotters holding gently onto his shins on either side. When he first started riding about four years ago, Balkus said he was less comfortable sitting in the saddle on his own – “I had a death grip on everybody,” he recalled – but he now has little trouble sitting up tall.

During his lessons, Huffman pays close attention to his posture. If Balkus slides a bit to one side, she’ll pause and ask him to think about what he needs to do to adjust himself.

After a few laps around the perimeter of the BITS pen last Thursday, Balkus was comfortably leading the horse while Huffman and the other spotters stood several inches away on either side. His progress is apparent outside of lessons, too: He sometimes uses a walker, and he said he has been able to travel longer distances with that since he started riding.

While Max’s lesson focuses heavily on communication, it also gives him a chance to build balance and leg strength. As Max rode his usual loop down along the edges of a field last week, turning up through a wooded trail then back to the stable, Mauzerall and the others with him stopped every so often.

After Rainbow Dash steadied, the instructor asked Max to try standing up in the saddle. Here, he’s supposed to keep his feet planted in the stirrups and his hands wrapped on the horn.

For the first few tries, Max needed Mauzerall and Martinelli, standing on the opposite side, to help. By about the fourth stop, he stood up on his own.

Eventually, Meridien said, the instructors will try to help Max work toward staying on his feet while Rainbow Dash is still walking. For now, though, just lifting his hips a few inches off a steady saddle was something to be proud of.

(Casey McDermott can be reached at 369-3306 or cmcdermott@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @caseymcdermott.)

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