Good Works

“The Horse Never Sees My Differences”

Riding program builds strength and self-esteem for special needs children and their families

Betsy Lawson writer

Like the youngsters she instructs at Lovelane Special Needs Horseback Riding Program, Debby Sabin thrives on challenge. And just as her students–who struggle with conditions like autism, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, hearing and vision impairments, spinal cord injuries, cancer, and rare genetic disorders–grow stronger each time they ride, Sabin’s efforts to make the program grow have steadily gained momentum since its inception in 1988.

Sabin was a graduate student at Boston University when she learned the barn where she taught a handful of lessons was slated for demolition. So Sabin started knocking on doors in her hometown of Weston wherever she saw the hint of a stable in someone’s backyard. It was on Love Lane Road where she found a kindred spirit in Elsie Rodney who trained Morgans there. Rodney offered Sabin the use of her horses for the special needs lessons at no cost.

Rodney’s selfless desire to see special needs children up on horses is the very essence of the volunteer spirit that Sabin says is the heart and soul of Lovelane and what has fueled its phenomenal growth. In 2004, Lovelane moved from that Weston backyard to new a five-acre site on Baker’s Bridge Road in Lincoln. The building, colored a soft green, rather than bright-barn red, is set back from the road and blends into the bucolic surroundings.

“We try to be good neighbors,” Sabin said of the new facility that now serves more than 100 riders weekly drawn from 36 Boston communities. There is office space, a kitchen, therapy rooms, and handicapped-accessible indoor stalls that enable riders access to feed carrots to their favorite horses.

And it seems everyone has a favorite horse: be it Pippi, the large, confident leader; or Sebby who does not like to be bridled, but has a gentle trot; or Hogni the Icelandic pony with his compact, but powerful body, strong enough to carry even full-grown riders. Many different sizes–and temperaments–of horses are needed to accommodate the spectrum of riders at Lovelane who start as young as 18 months on up through age 22.

The jewel of the facility, however, is the heated indoor arena that allows for safe and comfortable, year-round riding. It also plays host to special fundraising events as well as the Annual Student Horse Show in the fall. A viewing room replete with murals of horses, comfortable couches, and a bulletin board chock full of odds and ends overlooks the ring. Parents and siblings can watch lessons and talk with other families who also are navigating the often tumultuous and exhausting world of raising and caring for children with special needs.

For Teri Adler of Wellesley, Lovelane is a place where her daughter Alexandra is not defined by her disability, but rather admired as a rider among riders. “Ally has issues with paying attention, [but for] that half hour she is completely focused and does what the instructor tells her,” she said. “It’s the most focused she is all week.”

The first time Ally was on the horse, she wore a support belt because she could not hold up her back and neck. “Now she sits strong and safe and is able to post and trot and steer,” Adler said.

Therapeutic riding combines occupational, physical, and/or speech therapy. The horse’s gait mimics the human gait, stimulating neurological function and sensory processing that helps children like Ally progress toward specific therapeutic goals. “We’re amazed by how far Ally’s come in her three years riding here,” Adler said.

Just as important is how eager younger daughter Anna, who does not have special needs, is to bring her friends to Lovelane and brag about her big sister. At age four, Anna makes her way to Lovelane’s kitchen, and is known by all the instructors and volunteers. Grandparents Elinor and Barry Adler of Wayland often come to watch lessons and never miss the annual horse show where Ally has won blue ribbons that she proudly displays in her room.

“Our whole family feels at home at Lovelane,” Teri Adler said, an experience she and her husband Jeff Lazzarino want to see extended to more children in need. To that end, the couple helped with the bi-annual Hoedown held last September.

One fundraising challenge the couple noted is that people hear “horses” and “Lincoln” and picture an exclusive program geared only toward affluent families. In reality, more than 60 percent of Lovelane’s riders receive some form of tuition assistance.

While most insurance plans have yet to cover therapeutic riding, many care providers now recognize its benefits. They’ll work in concert with Lovelane staff to draw up therapy plans specific to each child, all while maintaining appropriate levels of privacy regarding the child’s medical condition.

Jennifer Siedman of Wellesley, director of development and self-described grateful parent of a Lovelane rider, explains how riding stimulates the part of the brain that controls speech. “Working [on speech] with an autistic child, for example, right after a lesson can have tremendous impact,” Siedman says. As the program continues to grow and funds become available, Lovelane hopes to incorporate more traditional therapies for riders on site.

A grant from the Boston Scientific Foundation several years back helped to furnish some needed equipment in the therapy room and Lovelane is continuing to reach out to potential sponsors and to look for unique partnerships. This past summer, for instance, Lovelane partnered with The Victory Program/Revision House in Dorchester in a pilot program that brought three single mothers with challenging life circumstances out to Lincoln to experience riding horses, both indoors and out.

Lovelane has an outdoor sensory trail for more experienced riders that can also serve as a visual scavenger hunt of sorts, Siedman said. While outside, riders look for specially-placed items along the trail and are excited to communicate their “finds” to their instructors.

“Wheelchairs don’t go into the woods very easily,” Siedman said, making exposure to nature another of the program’s benefits that, unlike a doctor’s office or hospital setting, is a “normalizing experience” for kids. So, too, is the summer camp program Lovelane offers, a rite of passage so often denied to children with special needs.

Lovelane is its volunteers
Ask any of the 140-plus Lovelane volunteers for success stories and heartfelt examples are quickly shared. A favorite is the uncommunicative child who mastered three hand signs by the end of his first lesson. The whole family then made it a point to learn how to sign.

To safely have a special needs child on a horse, three adult volunteers are often needed alongside the paid instructor: a walker on either side of the horse in case a child begins to slip or needs immediate assistance, and another to lead the horse. Without its volunteers, Lovelane would not have the manpower to offer such labor-intensive programs as interactive vaulting, creative movement, or the barn management class.

Interactive vaulting is where students perform exercises or maintain positions on the back of a moving horse or stationary vaulting barrel. The classes generate an energetic atmosphere where students not only build their physical strength, but also make social connections with their peers. The creative movement class allows students to work on small and large motor movements through joyful self-expression. It also requires volunteer help in the classroom. And the barn management class gets them mucking out stalls, feeding, and grooming the horses and other chores.

“There’s not a stone in the bunch,” said Ruth Lawler of Wellesley about those with whom she volunteers. “It’s a bunch of people who love animals and love to work with special needs children.”

Lawler has been with Lovelane for seven years and says she’s continually amazed by the strength and determination the kids show. She spoke of one little boy who started riding last September who was so weak and floppy he could barely sit up, even with the support belt. His voice was barely a whisper.

“He works so hard at riding his horse … [and] the connection works on so many levels,” Lawler said of that feeling of pride that comes from being able to control a big animal. “Instead of whispering, he now shouts ‘walk’ to best of his ability,” she said.

In addition to his mother, the boy’s grandparents and teachers have all come to watch his lessons. “The whole family is really supportive,” Lawler said, “therapeutic riding is the perfect recipe for what he needs.”

Lovelane Special Needs Horseback Riding Program in Lincoln is a non-profit organization that relies on grants, individual and corporate donations, and tuition to meet its operating costs. It does charge for lessons, but 60 percent of riders receive some form of tuition assistance. Even at the full rate, tuition does not cover the true costs of acquiring, boarding, and caring for Lovelane’s 12 horses.