At Touchstone Farm, equine therapy has the power to break barriers for children with challenges
Terri Devlin and her daughter, Jess Dickey, of Jaffrey have seen miracles in the therapeutic horseback riding they do with students. Little miracles, like the girl who can't tell left from right, except when she's sitting on the back of a horse. And big miracles, too, as when a completely wheelchair-bound student stood up and walked after several years of riding therapy. But they both say they're the ones benefiting from what they do.
Horses are in Terri's blood, and it's a trait she's passed on to her daughter, Jess, who at 19 years old already knows she wants to follow in her mother's footsteps and be a therapeutic riding instructor.
"This kind of just fell into my life.
Horses have always been a part of my life, been a love and a deep passion for me," said Terri. "Without me knowing, they have been therapeutic." Having worked with people with mental and physical challenges as an activities coordinator previously, Terri was able to combine her two passions when she began giving therapeutic riding lessons at Touchstone Farm in Temple 13 years ago. Now, she holds an Advanced Level Therapeutic Riding Instructor Certification and is the head of the therapeutic riding program, which Touchstone Farm calls "Horse Power."
Formerly called Pony Farm, the facility has offered a comprehensive therapeutic riding program to students with various challenges, including attention deficit disorder, autism and traumatic brain injury, since 1989. The farm became a nonprofit run by a board of directors in 2010, when they changed the name to Touchstone Farm.
Terri's daughter, Jess, inherited her mother's love of horses - and of helping people. Since she was small, she's wanted to work with horses, and after seeing her mother get involved in riding therapy, she knew that's what she wanted to do with her life as well. She's been teaching her own classes at Touchstone Farm for the past three years, and plans to get her own instructor certification this winter. Touchstone has its own instructor training school, where hopeful instructors go through three months of intensive training to receive a Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International Instructor Certification.
While helping their students build strength and confidence is the goal, the two women say they're also reaping the rewards of their chosen profession.
"It's almost a selfish thing," admitted Terri. "I need these students as much as they need me. It's a real feel-good job that not a lot of people get to experience."
Jess agrees. She said she's had just two lessons with one student, and is already seeing a big improvement in comprehension and direction taking when the student is on horseback. That's an amazing feeling as an instructor, she said.
"It makes you feel good about yourself," said Jess.
"Like, ‘Wow, I'm actually helping them and getting them to understand things.'" "There's a huge sense of accomplishment as an instructor and human being when you watch them beam with pride," said Terri. "It's very heartwarming, touching, powerful and deep. And I don't mean to sound cheesy when I say that. It just is."
There are two sides to the benefits riding offers people with emotional, mental or physical challenges. The first is a purely physical benefit.
Terri explained that riding helps improve coordination, balance and in building stamina; it also strengthens core muscles. The movement of a walking horse mimics the movement of a person's hips as they walk, which helps students who have a limited range of motion or other mobility problems. For some clients, she noted, just being able to sit up in the saddle by themselves without the aid of volunteers is a big step forward.
The other benefits are emotional. Riding builds selfesteem and cooperation with others, and lowers anxiety as well. Some students with disorders like autism, which make it difficult for the student to connect with other people, are able to connect with the horse.
"Horses just have a characteristic, a personality, something that touches humans," said Terri. "They can relate. We're kind of horses ourselves. We need socialization, we need a hierarchy. We share their same needs."
Two of Terri's students, Vicky O'Connell and Justin Lucchino, who both reside at Four Winds Community - a residential care facility for people with special needs in Temple and Wilton - have been doing therapeutic riding for 10 years.
"Justin loves coming. Part of that is the social aspect, but he also really connects with the horses," said Astrid Martin, one of the founders of Four Winds. "He loves cars, and this is the closest he can get to being able to drive one.
One horsepower," she joked.
O'Connell was more hesitant when she first took a riding lesson, said Martin, because she was afraid of falling off. But a rider doesn't have to get right up on the horse, according to Devlin. They can make a connection with the horse on the ground, while learning to groom and lead them. And that's how O'Connell started, said Martin, and she's moved on to being an independent rider.
"There's a great deal of trust and bonding with the horse involved," said Martin.
"[O'Connell and Lucchino] both benefited greatly from being in charge of themselves and the horse."
That's what the program is all about, and why Jess and Terri do what they do, said Jess. "I love being with the people who I work with and who I'll be helping," she said.
"I love being outside with horses and the people I love.
It's a kind of natural thing that's in my blood."
For more information about Touchstone Farm's therapeutic riding program, contact Terri Devlin at 654-6308 or visit www.touchstonefarm. org. Touchstone farm also offers able-bodied riding lessons and carriage driving classes.
Ashley Saari can be reached at 924-7172 ext. 235 or asaari@ledgertranscript.
com. She's on Twitter at@AshleySaari.