The Healing Power of Therapeutic Horse Riding

Macarthur Sohl spends his days in a wheelchair due to a cruel muscle disease called spinal muscular atrophy. But at the BiNa Farm, the 4 1/2-year-old can climb onto a chestnut-colored horse named Bo and giggle as he looks down on everyone else.

It’s a powerful scene, and one played out repeatedly at the farm, a 2-year-old nonprofit that gives therapeutic riding lessons to children with special needs in Sherborn, at the Dana Hall School in Wellesley and the Massachusetts Hospital School in Canton.

Founded by Coryn Bina, her husband, Babak, a Boston restaurateur, and Terry Snow, a therapeutic riding instructor, the foundation employs 18, serves more than 100 families, and recently opened new headquarters in Natick. In addition to a variety of horse-based therapies, the farm also gives music, drama, yoga, gardening and rock-climbing experiences to children with disabilities, their siblings and their parents.

We recently chatted with Coryn Bina, who was 40 years old – and hooked for life – the first time she rode a horse.

1 Why was your own first time riding such an emotional experience for you?

A: I wanted to ride a horse mainly so I could experience what my son was going through with his lessons. But as soon as I got on the back of the horse, I started to second-guess my decision. My instructor (co-founder Terry Snow) was quick to realize how I was feeling. She told me to breathe, to relax and that it was OK to feel how I was feeling and to just let it go through me. I did, and it was very intense and empowering. My eyes filled with tears. I was in shock that I felt that way. If the horse and Terry were able to reach me, then I was confident they were reaching others.

2 How do you know that horse therapy works?

A: First and foremost we know it works because of the immediate change we see in the riders’ core strength, balance, posture and self-esteem. Parents, as well as the doctors and therapists, report a change within a few weeks. The physical improvement happens because of the three-dimensional movement and warmth of the horse’s body moving with the rider’s body. Then improved self-esteem and confidence is brought on because of the bond between the horse, instructors and volunteers.

3 How do you find the right horses for this work?

A: We have a good team of people who work with us. Therapeutic riding horses are not easy to find. The horse can’t be afraid of a wheelchair. You’ve got to constantly school the horse to make sure it doesn’t spook around children.

4 You don’t have children with special needs. Why did this end up as your cause?

A: This is a question I get asked weekly. The short answer is that I am a firm believer that you are where you are supposed to be. The long answer is that I have always been extremely sensitive toward those with extra challenges. Even as a child, I remember not understanding why someone in a wheelchair couldn’t always go where I could go; it didn’t seem fair to me. Neither of my children have special needs but it’s very important to us that they know how to be patient and tolerant of people with special needs.

5 Tell us about the children who come here.

A: We work with so many different amazing children with a variety of disabilities – children on the autism spectrum, children with cerebral palsy, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, Down syndrome, brain injuries, language and learning disabilities  and children from Shriner’s Hospital with burn injuries.

I will always remember two 4-year-old twins from Shriner’s Hospital who came to us on a scholarship. We needed to help the girls start to communicate to each other after a terrible tragedy. One of our instructors is amazing with the mental health piece of our program and she got these two girls to do horsemanship together before their lesson. My favorite picture of all time is when one sister put her arm around the other sister’s back, as she got closer to the horse during the grooming. It was very powerful because the girls had been very distant up until that moment. The horse’s energy and beauty became the bridge between these two girls to come together and heal together.

The children know the horses are not judging them. There is something magical about these horses. To this day, I still don’t know what it is.

Susan Flynn as an associate editor of Boston Parents Paper.

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