Calls for student volunteers to saddle up for children’s literacy: Equine therapy helps special needs and at-risk youths

Thomas Maye / THE GATEPOST

[Editor’s Note: The surnames of certain individuals were omitted to protect the privacy of special needs youths.]

Time moves like a sweet marmalade on the farm at Horse SenseAbility (HSA), a Sherborn-based nonprofit owned by director Polly Kornblith. 

Past a sloping Christmas tree farm and guarded by a canopy of woods, there are few nosy neighbors to interrupt, save for the clucking hens and curious mares. 

But in the sleepy indoor riding rink April 5, as the birds chattered and the last pockets of snow made their stubborn retreat, there was no mistaking the echo of 4-year-old Jacqueline W.’s laughter. 

Looking over the balcony, onto the pocked tract of dirt, she’s a small figure. Even on Ruby the horse, the smallest and most docile on the farm – Kornblith called the mare’s breed “the labrador of horses” – the toddler seemed ready to catapult off the saddle. 

Her childlike wonder seems typical for any 4-year old – as special needs teacher and instructor Anne Wilson helps her on the horse, along with her riding assistant, a young woman named Ari – Jacqueline’s abuzz with questions. 

However, Jacqueline’s autism diagnosis has given her significant challenges and delays. Her father, Carter W., said she faces difficulties with “focusing, following directions, and behaving responsibly” due to her special needs.

Kornblith, who has a master’s degree in special education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, described the farm as a “sanctuary,” away from the hustle and bustle of the world around them. Dealing with trauma victims – including a Syrian refugee – people with special needs, and at-risk youth, Kornblith said the farm offers young people a safe place to learn the ropes and take the reins.

Many of the young people served by the program struggle with PTSD and emotional trauma. “They have good reason not to trust people,” Kornblith said. Forming a bond with the horses allows them to process complicated emotions they may otherwise not have the ability to understand or express.

“Prey animals are hypervigilant – they’re always looking for the next thing that might hurt them. … It takes a lot for them to trust,” similar to abused or neglected children, she said.

“PTSD is commonly talked about with veterans, but we see the same symptoms with many children in the foster care system,” she added. “In my opinion, there’s no way a child can be in foster care and not experience trauma, even if it’s just the trauma of being separated.”

Beyond forming deep bonds with the animals, horse therapy proponents advocate for riding as a tool to facilitate the learning process. For Jacqueline, riding “continues to be an outlet which has provided increased confidence and physical activity,” Carter W. said.

Throughout the riding process, Jacqueline’s concentration hardens over time – for a rambunctious 4-year-old, she’s remarkably focused on the tasks in front of her.

Ari A., a young adult with autism, serves as testament to the power of animal therapy. Shy and largely nonverbal, Kornblith said her work as an assistant on the farm is “the first paying job she’s ever held.” She’s skeptical of the scrawling notepad and beeping camera in the background, but brushing Ruby the horse, she feels safe.

Horse SenseAbility offers a variety of programs alongside the therapeutic riding sessions in which Jacqueline takes part. City to Saddle brings underserved and at-risk urban youth to the sanctuary of the farm, for instance, while Ari’s an alum of WildStar Wranglers, which helps teach special needs adults job-training skills alongside equine therapy. Stable Moments provides aforementioned animal therapy for victims of trauma in the foster care system.

Along with the programs offered, HSA includes physical horse therapy sessions, community visits, and farm tours and field trips.

At WildStar Wranglers, “It’s been really remarkable to see their progress already, even in just a few weeks,” Kornblith said. “We treat it like a job so they know what they can expect from an employer.”

Drifting in between office work, overseeing Jacqueline’s riding, answering questions, and filling out paperwork, Kornblith makes the massive effort of managing her own nonprofit look easy – but alongside her small staff, she said she could use some help.

She’s enlisting the assistance of FSU English professor Colleen Coyne’s Grant Writing class, which teaches students about finding funding for nonprofit ventures among other projects. Kornblith is looking for Framingham State University student volunteers to enlist for her latest program: Reading, Writing, and Riding.

“The riding helps as an incentive for learning,” Kornblith said, expanding upon the program’s mission. She added riding horses, according to some studies, activates the same parts of the brain involved in language learning and acquisition, which can improve literacy results over time.

Kornblith said volunteers for the upcoming fall program will participate three days a week, helping tutor children to improve their reading and writing skills.

Dawn Ross, director of Career Services at FSU, said students can apply through the Pathways or Choice Program internship.

Kornblith can be contacted via info@horsesenseability.org. She will also be appearing at the May 8 employer showcase from 12 p.m. to 3 p.m. to recruit more volunteers.

Applicants can look forward to an environment of warmth and support. The love for his daughter radiates across the room as Carter W. cheered for his daughter, awkwardly taking photos on his iPad. Jacqueline’s nervous getting off the horse – it’s a long fall to the ground for her – but Wilson takes her time, encouraging her gently, and the jitters quickly dissipate.

Jacqueline may have challenges ahead of her, but as Carter W. holds her tight, brushing the horse hair off her coat, she looks to be in strong hands.

“A horse doesn’t see a child with autism who has often felt that others wanted her to be different than she is,” according to the HSA website. “The horse just sees and accepts a child he wants to be within his herd of 2.”

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