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May 16. 2012 10:28PM

Horses of all sizes help people of all ages


Jackson Graham hugs his pal Ginger, a therapy horse, at BITS Equine Therapy Center in Hopkinton. (Nancy Bean Foster)

HOPKINTON -- From war veterans trying to find peace in their daily lives, to autistic children hungering for a connection with others, the horses at the Back in the Saddle Equine Therapy Center (BITS) help make those goals a reality.

“Horses are very therapeutical,” said owner Pauline Meridien. “They can calm a troubled soul.”

Meridien, 59, has been around horses for as long as she can remember and her 26-acre farm in Hopkinton has been a wonderful place for horses to call home. But 10 years ago, Meridien's daughter Sarah was studying various forms of therapy at the University of New Hampshire and during training in hippotherapy – the use of horses for therapeutic purposes – Sarah called her and said she should be involved in the practice.

Meridien couldn't say no, and the idea for Back in the Saddle, which is the song Meridien and her daughter liked to sing while out riding, was born. Using the horses Sarah grew up on, they brought in a master-level hippotherapist named Lorna Young to lead the program.

“She knew how to do the teaching and I had the horses, so it worked out perfectly,” said Meridien.

The program started with four kids and two horses and has grown exponentially over the years to include eight horses, and now has miniatures named Cover Girl and Ginger, and dozens of kids and adults who benefit from working with the animals.

Helpful Horses

People struggling with a wide variety of issues find comfort and skills through their connections with horses, Meridien said. Riding horses strengthens core muscles, improves balance, and in stroke patients or those with traumatic brain injuries, riding can help rebuild pathways in the brain that can lead to increased control over muscle groups. For children with disabilities, riding can reinforce concepts like telling left from right.

For kids who have difficulty connecting with other people, including students from a local alternative high school who struggle with various emotional issues, working with the horses can help kids learn to care for others without the fear of judgment or criticism, Meridien said.

“You can tell them all your troubles,” she said, “and they don't tell anybody on you.”

For soldiers returning from overseas, or veterans struggling with the war in their pasts, horses can provide an important mirror.

“Working with horses helps improve skills in communication,” said Meridien. “Through them, the veterans can gain insight into their body language, for instance, and how it's perceived by others.”

The horses also help soldiers overcome emotional issues including depression and anxiety, With a grant from the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, Meridien said there are openings for 20 veterans who will learn everything about caring for a horse and riding basics. And every other weekend, the program will be open to families of the veterans who can come and participate and be part of the process.

Not Just a Pony Ride

This summer, for the first time, BITS will be open to the general public during special sessions throughout the week, but Meridien said the farm is not the place to bring kids who simply want to be entertained. A visit to BITS means spending time with the horses, working with teachers, and learning every step of caring for the animals from cleaning the stalls to grooming them to tacking them.

“We want to teach kids to ride from the ground up so that they understand the level of responsibility that goes into caring for a horse,” said Meridien.

BITS also has openings for kids who need to gain some community service hours and aren't afraid of a bit of hard, but ultimately rewarding, work, said Meridien.

Leaving the Farm

While a lot of people come to BITS to participate in the various programs, Cover Girl, the smallest of the horses, likes to travel and visits nursing homes, libraries and schools where she becomes a gentle companion for folks young and old.

Cover Girl was part of a herd of horses who were not receiving the best possible care from their owners.

“They weren't given any food and nobody talked to them,” said Julia Maloney, 6, Meridien's granddaughter and the unofficial spokeswoman for BITS.

The Northeast Miniature Horse Association ended up buying the herd from the owners and put the horses up for adoption, and Cover Girl eventually found a home with Meridien. Because she's so small, Cover Girl simply gets into a handicapped-accessible van that was donated to BITS and goes on her missions, meeting with children and the elderly, and the people she visits groom her and talk to her, and sometimes even read to her. But Cover Girl, the diva of the farm, never leaves home without some of her favorite shoes.

“She's the Imelda Marcos of the horse world,” said Meridien.

Silver lame slippers, pink mules, even sneakers fit on Cover Girl's tiny hooves, and all of them come from the Build-A-Bear Workshop, a retailer that allows kids to make their own teddy bears.

Funding the Programs

While horses are her life, Meridien works as a respiratory therapist to help pay the bills at the farm, and the rest of the money to care for and feed the horses comes from grants and donations to the 501(c) 3 non-profit organization.

BITS has a board of directors that helps lead the fundraising efforts, but more members are needed for the board to help focus fundraising efforts.

“The only people who get paid at BITS are the actual instructors,” said Meridien. “The rest of us are all volunteers, and that's the way we want it to be.

For more information, visit www.bitsetc.org.


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