For anyone who takes up the challenge, learning to handle a horse can be a source of pride.
The value of that experience is amplified for people who must overcome physical, cognitive and mental disabilities while they learn how to ride and care for these magnificent animals.
Especially during the pandemic, when isolation has added anxiety to the challenges that people with disabilities must face, mastering horsemanship is empowering.
“It’s so heartwarming, to see how children go from being anxious as they just build in confidence, independence and well-being,” said Janet Nittmann, CEO of Windrush Farm in North Andover, which has hosted a program in therapeutic horseback riding since 1964.
Windrush, now serving around 160 people each week, was founded by Marjorie Kittredge of Boxford, “a very established rider and judge at horse shows,” Nittmann said.
Kittredge, who died in 2010, was inspired by European programs in therapeutic riding, and also by the example of Outward Bound, which offered a model of experience-based learning that she adapted to horseback riding.
“Many parents say, ‘the day my child rides at Windrush is the happiest day of their week,’” Nittmann said.
But some children and adults with disabilities also have to deal with financial limitations that block their access to this valuable activity.
Windrush Farm, which charges $55 per hour for therapy riding, has been addressing that problem since 2019 with two scholarships, one named for Kathy Blanton of Beverly and another for Mark Perry of Marblehead.
The awards are based on financial need and are restricted to people aged 6 and older who have no prior experience with therapeutic horseback riding. Applications are available at www.windrushfarm.org, and are due Jan. 7, for the sessions that will begin in the spring of 2022.
“We’re so thrilled we can offer this benefit to riders who have not been able to benefit in the past,” Nittmann said. “It opens the door for people who didn’t think about it, and didn’t know about it.”
Perry, who died in 2018, was an equine dentist who grew up riding horses on his grandfather’s farm in Franklin, and eventually went to work as a groom at Suffolk Downs, said Ellen Perry, his wife. Mark also trained as an exercise rider, but started to develop his dentistry practice in the early ‘90s when he saw that racing in New England was dying out.
He mostly treated show horses, with clients in Florida and Georgia, as well as the North Shore. and he “did a lot of the U.S. Olympic horses,” Ellen said.
As he traveled up and down the East Coast, Mark also treated horses at Windrush Farm and other therapeutic riding programs out of sheer enthusiasm for what they were doing.
“When he passed, everybody wanted to donate money,” Ellen said. “One of my sons came up with the idea. ‘Let’s do Windrush Farm, because dad always loved those places, everywhere he went.’ He worked for basically nothing to do the horses. He always believed in giving back.”
Blanton, who died in 2019, contracted Eastern equine encephalitis from a mosquito bite when she was a toddler, which left her with limited speech and motor control, said her sister, Cheryl Blanton.
“She fought for the last 50 years of her life to gain as much of that back as she could,” she said.
Having grown up in Topsfield, where several neighbors owned horses, Kathy always loved these animals and benefited greatly from the years she spent riding them at Windrush.
“I like to call it the Windrush experience,” Cheryl said. “For her, it truly was the catalyst for remarkable growth, physically, socially and emotionally.”
Kathy spent 15 years attending Windrush, but it wasn’t always easy to find resources that would allow her to continue. That’s what inspired her family to found a scholarship in her name, so others could benefit from riding as much as Kathy did.
“All of the staff and the horses, they’re very special, and so attuned to the needs of the rider that she felt comfortable challenging herself,” Cheryl said. “She felt comfortable communicating the way she communicates. With that, she became an equestrian, she wasn’t a lady with disabilities. She was able to excel at what she was doing.”