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Healing Humans With Horses

Horses help people, especially people on the autism spectrum. That’s the guiding principle of High Hopes Therapeutic Riding Inc., a center for equine therapy located in Old Lyme,
Connecticut. This year High Hopes is celebrating 40 years in existence. It was started in 1974, with the passion and perseverance of Sis Gould, eight participants, one instructor and borrowed horses. High Hopes has now grown into a world renown facility, offering a wide array of mounted and unmounted programs to participants who range in age from three to 77.

High Hopes set out on a mission of improving the lives of people with cognitive, physical, and emotional disabilities in a safe, highly monitored environment. Under PATH (Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship), certified instructors, and with the aid of volunteers, participants here experience diverse learning through riding, carriage driving, unmounted programs, integrated summer camps and new equine therapeutic innovations.

The 27 horses at High Hopes range in size from a miniature horse named Al, to Buddy, a Perchereon draft. They are chosen carefully, screened extensively, and trained regularly. They must be in good physical shape, be well trained, display a certain kind of human empathy, and posses the right personality.

Through the natural movement of these four-legged friends, which closely mimics the gait of humans, therapeutic riding produces specific physical changes in the rider including muscle tone, posture, balance, circulation, and increases in strength. The integration of movement exploration while in the saddle is used to improve riders’ overall body awareness, sensory input, and establish rhythm. Nonphysical elements include overcoming fear and anxiety, increasing in self-esteem, and creating a bond with another living being that is emotionally beneficial, especially for individuals on the autism spectrum.

“This is a place where my child gets to come and just be a kid. She isn’t ‘different’ here, she doesn’t struggle here. It is a wonderful experience,” says Laurie Laterza, a shoreline resident who has been part of the High Hopes family for the past four years.

For the 650 yearly volunteers who donate more than 31,600 hours of their time, this place is a tranquil intermission from the hustle and bustle of life, a place to put on a happy face, live in the moment, and feed someone else’s soul—horse or human.

For the 1,725 people served annually, High Hopes is a rare respite, a community devoid of judgment, encompassed within a blanket of comfort, freedom, and achievement of goals. And for family members, High Hopes is a needed network and connection to others who are facing the same challenges; a safe haven to come together.

“We are a family here, dedicated to serving the community,” says Sara Qua, Development Director at High Hopes.

Always looking to bring equine-related programs to a larger population, “High Hopes at Camp Harkness in Waterford” recently began offering lessons in that location several times a week to an entirely new group of participants. (Harkness is one of only a few state parks in the country dedicated exclusively to providing a summer camp experience for people with disabilities).

High Hopes holds several fundraising events throughout the year. Surviving because of the generous monetary support of community members, various grants, sponsorships
and donations.

Next up is the Holiday Market, which will take place on November 16, from 12 to 4 p.m. For more information, go to highhopestr.org.

Image Credits: Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

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