Zoe Smith, 7 and a half, brushed the horse Swifty inside of a stable at Windrush Farm in North Andover on Thursday. Smith, who has heart defects, joined nine other children also fighting cardiac illnesses, preparing to ride her horse through obstacle courses the group had set up earlier that day.
After walking their animals to the farm’s barn, the riders, all Boston Children’s Hospital patients, strapped on saddles, mounted the horses, and began the ride.
“Walk on, Swifty,” Smith said, squeezing her legs against the tall brown horse with a white stipe down its face.
For thirty minutes, Smith and her fellow pediatric cardiac patients rode horses around Windrush’s barn, releasing their anxieties and expressing their vulnerabilities to the intelligent animals. The Boston Children’s Hospital patients fighting complex congenital heart disease attended the horse therapy program this week as an integrated part of their medical care.
“When I started I was a little bit scared of Swifty but now I’m fine,” said Smith, who had been riding with the horse for the past week. “Riding makes me feel strong, powerful, and tall while I’m on top of the horse. It’s relaxing.”
Complex congenital heart disease is a defect that occurs when the heart doesn’t develop properly in the womb. Young patients spend a lot of time in the hospital and often have to undergo surgery, which takes a toll on their mental and emotional health.
But by riding horses at Windrush Farm, the first therapeutic horse farm in the United States, patients can learn skills to benefit their mental health and strengthen their muscles, Kate Ullman-Shade, director of education for the cardiac neurodevelopmental program at BCH, said. Thanks to a donor, whose identity BCH declined to share, patients have been able to benefit from hippotherapy — physical and occupational therapy with the help of horses — through this program since 2017.
“For kids who haven’t felt successful in much of their lives, this helps them build independence, confidence, and self esteem,” Ullman-Shade said. “I’ve had kids say to me, ‘I’m so proud of myself.’”
At the farm, pediatric patients spend five days grooming and riding a horse designated to them based on their patient profiles. Although many of the children are skittish around the large animals at the beginning of the week, they quickly grow close to the horses, Ullman-Shade said.
Not only do the children enjoy spending time with the animals, but Ullman-Shade said that the therapy benefits their physical health too. By riding horses, patients are able to improve their balance, core strength, flexibility, hand-eye coordination, self regulation, confidence, and self-advocacy. Often patients’ muscles are weakened after recovering from surgery, so by sitting up straight on a horse and using leg muscles to guide the horse, patients can improve their physical strength.
Janet Nitmann, CEO of Windrush Farm, said that horses are very in tune with human emotion, which gives struggling patients a lot of confidence.
“If you’re kind to the horse, the horse will be kind to you, and there is a lot of self-fulfillment in that,” Nitmann said.
Once the patients are comfortable with their animals, Ullman-Shade said that they find it easy to become vulnerable with the horses, which is something they otherwise struggle to do day-to-day.
Michael Hammill, an 11-year-old patient with anxiety, cultivated a close relationship with his horse, Guinness.
“I was very nervous but then I warmed up to Guinness quickly,” Hammill said. “He’s really nice and really calm. My favorite part of coming here has been riding on Guinness and being friends with him.”
Ullman-Shade said that another patient who has anxiety initiated sharing the “calming strategies” they learned in therapy at BCH with their horse to calm it down when it got spooked.
Horses aren’t the only animals that can bring comfort to patients suffering from physical or mental illness. Julie McKinley, a former nurse at Brigham and Women’s hospital and the owner of Jameson, a Shetland sheepdog who works as a service animal at BWH, said that patients are often very stressed and animal therapy helps raise endorphin levels.
“When we participate in pet therapy, our bodies do things without us even really knowing like decrease stress levels, decrease blood pressure,” McKinley said. “And all of these hormones get released, like oxytocin and serotonin, which help with pain and fear.”
McKinley said that therapy animals are also helpful to motivate patients to participate in their medical care. The social interaction with dogs like Jameson will help unmotivated patients get up and move around, McKinley said.
In addition to the BCH patients, other children with complex congenital heart disease have found a network of support through BCH’s program at Windrush Farm. Addie Hogan, a 16-year-old from Danvers, who was born with a heart defect and had it repaired when she was 6, volunteers at the farm to help the BCH patients.
Hogan said that when your medical history is such a big part of your identity, it is nice to come to Windrush Farms and see children make relationships with the horses just like how any other kids would, without being stopped by their past.
“Last year I saw one of the kids’ scars poking out of their shirt and it was so shocking to me because I’ve never seen another person with the scar that I have,” Hogan said. “People always pity me because I’m different, so I felt connected to them, it was like ‘wow I’m not alone.’”
Luca Castellano, a 12-year-old patient, said that he learned life lessons through riding his designated horse, Squash, that he can apply to his life outside of Windrush Farm.
“Today when I was riding Squash he got spooked by a tractor and he decided to quickly go somewhere else and was jumping a little bit. He was nervous but I was able to trot with him more easily by knowing that whenever something happens that’s scary, you can easily bounce back if you know all the details from it,” Castellano said.