MOUNT DESERT ISLAND—Horses aren’t just for derbies. In fact, equine-assisted therapy engages people in activities such as riding, grooming, feeding and leading horses. Goals of this therapeutic technique are achieved at different stables around the island.
The Riordan family founded Whistle Pig Farm in Mount Desert with a goal to help both horses and people.
“Our mission began as rescuing, rehabilitating and rehoming horses but we discovered early on that the horse is really a wonderful way to unlock the potential of people that helps them build self–esteem and self–confidence,” said Jamie Riordan, owner of the nonprofit farm.
His wife Holly Riordan agrees that horses are given a purpose when they become acclimated to human interaction.
“The more of a purpose we give them, the greater the likelihood of their long–term survival and success,” she said.
Over the years, Whistling Pig Farm has hosted summer and afterschool programs for local kids. “We have had children come through our various programs who have difficult personal histories and spectrum disorders,” said Jamie. “Just watching their interactions with the animals is amazing. These kids may not be trustful of human beings, but they are very trustful of animals and it’s just wonderful to see the bond.”
Willowind Therapeutic Riding Center in Bar Harbor is another local facility that uses horses to help people with their ailments. Development Coordinator Auria Mauras explained that most of their riders with physical issues work one-on-one with co-founder and director David Folger on how to balance on a horse.
“Some of them are kids with hip issues or chronic pain, we have a rider with MS (multiple sclerosis),” Mauras said.
To be in control of an animal that weighs over a thousand pounds is what empowers the rider. “We have riders in walkers so being on the horse gives them legs; what they can’t do by walking they can do on a horse and that’s how the therapy comes in,” she said.
Folger’s patients are instructed to introduce themselves to the horse and brush and walk it before they can ride it. Some of the nonprofit’s experienced riders take up an activity known as equestrian vaulting-gymnastics and dance on horseback.
“It’s not competitive vaulting. The riders learn about the different motions they can do on a horse,” Mauras said, claiming it’s an empowering self-expression technique for their patients with autism and Down syndrome.
“Horses have a way of healing. They don’t talk, but their communication is different and they adapt to their rider well because they sense the people around them,” said Mauras.
The nonprofit equine therapeutic riding center on State Highway 3 is currently full but has a waiting list and prioritizes those who need therapy.