Therapy and Joy at High Hopes in Old Lyme

Matthew Scotella carriage driving at High Hopes Therapeutic Riding (High Hopes)

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OLD LYME — When Jennifer Curley and Peter Scotella’s sons were in the “birth to three” system for children with disabilities, their therapist suggested starting them early at High Hopes Therapeutic Riding center.

“They have a lot of sensory issues to varying degrees, but for all of them even coming into the barn, it was a challenge just to get them there – the noises, the smells, there was a cat there at one point,” Curley said. “Sometimes we’d just walk around the empty barn and arena as part of the prep to kind of get them actually on the horses because [my sons] were so young,” she said. 

Twins James and Andrew Scotella, now 17, started at High Hopes at age three, and their brother, Matthew Scotella, now 19, started at age four.

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All three have a range of neuromuscular disorders and use power wheelchairs to combat ongoing fatigue, and Matthew has had brain cancer, Curley said.

She said that physical therapy is difficult for her sons because it’s exhausting.

“And it isn’t fun. High Hopes kind of checks the boxes as a kind of a physical therapy because it is working their core muscles and is working stability, but it’s fun,” she said. “So even though it exhausts them, it’s so worth it.” 

Andrew Scotella riding at High Hopes Therapeutic Riding (High Hopes)

High Hopes specializes in hippotherapy, which uses the natural movement of a horse for speech, physical and occupational therapy. The facility is home to 20 horses on 120 acres, with indoor and outdoor riding facilities and a sensory riding trail. 

Each week the center provides activities for about 170 participants from ages four to 74, with more than 29 different diagnoses — autism spectrum disorder, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, multiple sclerosis, visual and hearing impairments, emotional and behavioral disorders, intellectual delay, and traumatic brain injury. 

All instructors are certified through the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International and the staff includes licensed physical, occupational, speech and expressive arts therapists. 

“It’s not just riding. There’s unmounted work, carriage driving, field trips. We have a number of programs — Resiliency Reins, camps, programs for a recovery from addiction, memory care, sensory needs,” said Kitty Stalsburg, executive director, who started as a volunteer at High Hopes 36 years ago.

The organization was founded in 1974 and made its permanent home in Lyme 30 years ago. 

She said that prospective participants are assessed for what type of services they would like, sometimes in consultation with their medical, educational or mental health professionals. 

“From there, we determine whether it should be private or a group, mounted or unmounted, or carriage driving once a week for the academic year, 31 weeks or once a week for summer program,” she said. 

Gentle giants

Rolex, a chestnut Westphalian gelding, is Andrew Scotella’s horse at High Hopes. 

“He’s very tall,” said Andrew. “Being on this horse – it feels free, like a ‘no care in the world’ kind of feeling, and having joy.” 

He said he now rides independently off-lead and has plans for building his ridership skills.

“I can look back and see where I started in a sitting trot and progressing to a posting trot to then learning the different aspects of the trot,” he said. “I’d like to see myself in the future being able to canter and working toward that as a goal. You need to have much more balance than a trot because the way the horse moves when they canter is much different — it’s a whole different rhythm, the way their feet move.”

James Scotella’s horse, Charmer, is white with speckled dots.

“He’s big. but he knows when I’m tired — he’s awesome,” he laughed. “Every week I’m excited to see him and I think he’s excited to see me.”

James said he’s been riding Charmer for about two years after trying out a few other horses. 

“It took a little bit for us to get used to each other, how each of us work. It took a little while but we’re a good match,” he said. “In the beginning I was very anxious because he was the biggest horse I’ve ever ridden, and he could just tell… But as I rode him more I got less tense and he could sense that — and once I warmed up to him, he was amazing.”

He said that riding a horse teaches cooperation and teamwork, but the main goal is to have fun. 

“You have to work together and know each other, so for me and Charmer getting to know each other helps us work together better as a team,” he said. “For me, if it’s during school, it’s a place to wind down and have fun – and also you’re learning.” 

James Scotella riding at High Hopes Therapeutic Riding (High Hopes)

Matthew Scotella said his relationship with the horses reflects a deep bond of communication and trust. For several years he rode Sebastian, a chestnut Canadian Warmblood gelding, and this summer he’s carriage driving with a horse named Blessing, a seal brown Standardbred gelding.

“They’re gentle giants. They’re just the sweetest and it’s so great that I am able to ride these horses long term and build a connection with them. They know me, I know them and we’re able almost, like, to talk to each other,” he said. “I mean, these horses are some of my best friends.”

He and his brothers ride once a week on Fridays, a schedule all three have kept since the beginning.

“It’s great because I’m able to ride with them. I mean, it’s another bonding experience. And we all have different strengths and weaknesses, but we all talk to each other and work together really well.”

He said he was “terrified” when he began at age four, but slowly built a connection with the High Hopes staff and volunteers. 

“Then I got more accustomed to the horses and now I’m 19 years old and I’m riding some of the biggest horses at High Hopes,” he said. “I love riding outside in the fresh air and the wind. We ride year round – Winter is a little chilly but I have my long underwear, I have my jeans, I wear my socks. It doesn’t stop me.”

In the moment

Judith Cohen, 72, started coming to High Hopes in 2010 after a double hip replacement. She owned a horse and learned to ride when she was younger.

She started out in a class at High Hopes but now works one-on-one with an instructor. 

“We work on a lot of dressage moves. I’m using my hip flexors, which would have been otherwise kind of soft. And using [your] back makes your posture better,” she said.

She said riding helped her rehabilitate after her hip surgeries, and later her instructor identified that one of her knees was not operating properly, which led to a knee replacement.

“My instructor found stuff that my physical therapist did not. We were working on the posting trot and she found I was just taking the leg along for a ride,” she said. 

Even though riding is sitting, “you’re balancing and balancing is active,” said Cohen. ““I know that when I get off the horse, and I take off my helmet, sweat is pouring down.”

Participant and volunteer Judith Cohen at High Hopes Therapeutic Riding (High Hopes)

Horses can also provide lessons in mindfulness, Cohen said. 

“They’re not thinking about what they did five minutes ago, or what they’re about to do — they’re thinking about what they are doing in the moment,” she said. “When you ride you are in the moment with them — it’s a wonderful gift and not many situations can give you that.” 

Besides maintaining her physical progress and learning more as a rider, Cohen said she likes contributing as a volunteer, including her seasonal artwork for the lobby whiteboard. 

“Many participants volunteer and everybody’s skills and abilities [are] very gratefully accepted. I think if you’re dealing with people with disabilities, the most respectful thing you can do is accept their work because that, more than anything else, says that you understand that they have value.”

Three-dimensional movement

“There’s a very physical element that happens when a person sits astride a horse. Every time the horse moves, our pelvis moves forward and backward, side to side and rotationally — the way every time we walk, as normal human walking,” said Stalsburg. “When a person sits astride a horse, you get that three dimensional movement, [which] is very difficult to mimic in any other therapy situation.”

A therapeutic riding instructor’s goal for a rider might be to develop a skill and improve self-confidence and self-esteem, develop and improve receptive language or expressive language, she said. 

“Oftentimes, the horse is such a motivator, that there’s a huge desire to communicate with the horse. So folks who have struggled with verbal skills now have a real motivation to talk. They want to say, ‘Whoa’ to the horse. They want to say, ‘Walk on.’”

Unmounted work has become more popular, Stalsburg said, particularly for youth with mental health issues including anxiety, depression and pandemic-related issues. It’s “horsemanship on the ground,” grooming, leading and interacting with a very large animal.

“For someone who suffers from self-esteem and self-confidence [issues], it’s that decision-making ability, the control. ‘I’m now sitting on a 1000-pound animal and it goes left when I ask it to go left, walks when I ask it to walk.’ That’s very much an empowering growth opportunity,” Stalsburg said. “When folks overcome personal fears and achieve something, that’s how we grow, how we feel a sense of accomplishment, and we have improved self-confidence. That happens every day.” 

Pandemic recovery 

High Hopes includes 23 employees — or 17 full-time equivalent — but volunteers provide 96 percent of the workforce, a number that fell dramatically during the pandemic, said Stalsburg. 

“We’re back to about 65 percent. Pre-COVID we had 350 [volunteers] on a weekly basis, now we have less than 100,” she said. “We’ve had to have staff in those roles.”

During the pandemic, the center’s services shrank a bit, Stalsburg said, because of uncertainties, expense management and a decreased population who could participate. 

“We are ramping up – so we’re actively seeking additional appropriate horses, additional volunteers. I’m very pleased to say we actually have almost a full staff. That was hard to get back to,” she said. 

For High Hopes’ 50th anniversary in two years, Stalsburg said she is beginning to think about a few changes, like program expansion. 

“Our herd is a little lower than we would need it to be, so probably adding a few more horses that like this job and are appropriate and safe for this job, and adding more volunteers so that we have the sufficient trained volunteer support to help,” she said. 

Alignment with personal goals

Shruti Rajkumar, who rode at High Hopes from age three to 16, and graduated from college in May, told CT Examiner that the therapeutic approach at High Hopes more closely aligned with her personal goals than going to physical therapy. 

“I don’t like physical therapy for myself as a concept. My issue with physical therapy, from my perspective, was there was always a goal that was placed on me, which was always ‘try to get her to walk.’ And I don’t appreciate that,” said Rajkumar. “I am a very proud disabled person and I don’t care about being able to walk.”

Rajkumar said the goal of walking was never placed on her at High Hopes – the approach was completely different from physical therapy. 

“It was just ‘this is what your body can do and we’re going to work with that and you’re going to have fun and you’re going to be able to meet your own goals, while also getting a good workout,’” she said. 

Rajkumar said that she hates the phrase, “See the person, not the disability.” 

“But [High Hopes] did see a disabled person, a disabled participant… I am just a disabled participant that they are working with and I really appreciate that. It wasn’t something that they wanted to change about me,” she said. “I actually don’t want to be seen just as a person – I always want to be seen as a disabled person because if not, then nobody’s going to acknowledge me and my access needs and stuff like that.”

Benefits for families

Rajkumar’s mother, Priya Tandon, told CT Examiner that hippotherapy was recommended by Rajkumar’s birth-to-three therapists, but getting to know other parents was an unexpected benefit of the program. 

“In the waiting room, we had other parents around as well from all walks of life. Having gone through various things with their children, just to see where they are and where you are – it’s almost like a support group for the parents.”

The experience of riding becomes a beneficial part of each participant’s social and emotional well-being, which adds to the family’s quality of life, said Stalsburg. 

“Sometimes it’s more than just that direct single individual – it’s how we impact their families, how their lives feel better, how they feel better about themselves,” she said. “Whether we’re teaching attention and focus when they’re on the horse, it’s how that carries over when they’re off the horse.” 

Curley said she has bonded over the years with other parents in the High Hopes lounge while watching their children ride. 

“It’s nice because even though their issues are different than my children, you’re all coming there to get through something and find a way – whether it’s to build self esteem, whether it’s just purely to find a moment of joy.”