MIDDLETOWN – The boy was 7 or 8 years old when he said his first word.
"Goodbye," the child said to his horse.
"That was huge for us," said Janice Anderson.
She's one of the leaders of Manes & Motions on Daniel's Farm in Middletown. It's one of 16 therapeutic riding centers in Connecticut, serving children and adults with autism, physical disabilities, traumatic brain injuries, physical and emotional war wounds, and a range of other conditions.
The boy who was moved to speak for the first time has autism. His speech therapist had tried very hard, for a very long time, to motivate him and engage him enough for him to reach inside and come out with words.
The riding did it: The motion; a routine that is comforting once mastered; the freshness of the outdoors or the warmth of an indoor arena; the connection between human and horse; the calmness that inevitably envelops the rider as staff members and volunteers guide horse and rider around arenas throughout Connecticut.
There is a list of certified centers in the state on the website of PATH International – the Professional Assocation of Therapeutic Horsemanship. PATH provides training and certifies hundreds of programs across the country.
The therapy is gaining in popularity and acceptance.
"There has always been a group of people who were aware of the benefits of horse-riding therapy, and we've usually had waiting lists. But lately, the therapy is gaining more traction, and that has been getting our centers lots of attention – which is welcome,'' said Cher Smith, a spokeswoman for PATH, based in Denver.
"The centers are also doing more research with hospitals and centers of higher education," Smith said.
These folks have the therapy down to a science, so much so that that it is consistently producing reliable results. The Hospital for Special Care in New Britian, a rehabilitation center which also has a separate autism program, has long recognized the benefits.
After six years of affiliation, the hospital purchased the Manes & Motions program 2008 and made it permanent part of the hospital's menu of therapies.
The program leases part of the 160-year-old Daniel's Farm, on Millbrook Road, and recently built a heated indoor riding arena, with a treaded rubber surface and a viewing area wired for sound so parents and other family members can follow along with the program. The therapy costs $42 a week at Manes & Motions, and sessions of varying lengths are offered through the year.
On beautiful days, like this week, all the riding is done outside. About 140 trained volunteers work with Anderson and a staff of eight PATH-certified instructors.
For children and adults on the autism spectrum, the feeling of controlling and guiding a large animal provides a heavy dose of sensory input – and that helps the person focus and learn. And the more they learn, the more motivated they become to communicate with the horse, to move it right, or left, or gain some speed, said Anderson.
With the invigoration of the senses and the engagement that the riders with autism feel, they very often leave the therapy sessions with a calmer bearing that lasts well into the evening and helps make interactions with family easier, said Anderson.
"We see non-verbal children start using words or sign language to communicate with the horse,'' Anderson said. "The routine also helps with focus and learning – first the helmet, then mount, then ask the horse to walk on … We see them gaining self-esteem and learning life skills."
There are two therapeutic riding programs for military veterans, who are often helped physically and emotionally by the experience. As a person's pelvis sways on horseback, it is actually simulating the walking motion and serving as physical therapy. Anderson has seen wounded veterans and others go from walkers to crutches as they gain strength and mobility, and their gait improves.
Manes & Motions and many of the other therapeutic riding programs depend on grants and donations. Anderson's program held a fundraiser Friday at Daniel's Farm to help pay for the new arena.