If you fall off a horse at New Moon Ranch in Richmond, there's no getting back in the saddle -- because there is no saddle. Every equestrian overseen by proprietor and instructor Lotta Rosen must learn how to ride bareback, with little more than a twitch of the hips and legs to control the animal.
"I want people to learn how to be a horse," says Rosen, brushing hay from the forelock of Cricket, a 22-year-old, chestnut-brown gelding. "And to do that you have to understand the energy of a horse. It's tremendous, just amazing; it ripples through their body, and you'll feel that when you start riding."
Bright, late-morning light filters into the barn at New Moon Ranch, which I've discovered through a friend and her horse-crazy husband. Both claim to have been transformed by their visits here. Having ridden English- and Western-style, I'm curious to see how losing the saddle might be an enlightening, rather than frightening, experience.
"Horses do something to our souls," says Rosen. "They reach inside of us and they empower us, especially women. When you tap into that energy and emotion, that combination will work right through you."
Though Rosen is not technically a therapist, what she's talking about sounds very much like hippotherapy. I had learned prior to this late-June lesson about the practice of harnessing the power of horses to treat people with disabilities -- "hippos" is Greek for horse. Though horses and humans have connected for thousands of years, hippotherapy has only developed in the past three decades, due to the efforts of such pioneers as Virginia Martin and Barbara Glasow at a farm in Warwick, New York. After teaching therapeutic riding seminars in the United States, they met with German equestrians who were offering similar programs overseas.
In 1992, several U.S. therapists formed the American Hippotherapy Association, which has now grown to 95 "clinical specialists" in 35 states. Though none are listed for the Green Mountain State, the University of Vermont does offer courses in hippotherapy. (There are several Vermont members of the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association, an affliate organization.)
The member-therapists of the AHA share the philosophy that the multidimensional walk of the animal is similar to movement patterns of the human pelvis; by connecting the two, trained therapists try to improve neurological function and sensory processing. In the past 10 years, an increasing number of patients have found horse-related help for cerebral palsy, spina bifida, multiple sclerosis, strokes and developmental delays.
Under a broader umbrella of "therapeutic riding," horses are also used to treat psychological disorders, learning disabilities and emotional trauma. This is where Lotta Rosen comes in. Many of her clients are seeking more than just a riding lesson. "I get some women who have had some abuse, but they don't realize they're coming to me for that purpose," Rosen says. "They're the most amazing people to watch. The first lesson, they're scared to death, but near the end of the lesson they're able to close their eyes for 10 seconds and trust this animal."
Wearing Wrangler jeans, a straw hat and a T-shirt that reads "One Bucking Thing After Another," Rosen chokes up a little when recalling stories of her female clients. "They realize [the problem] is not them," she says. "They can get on this 1100-pound animal and have this incredible, calm experience where the horse listens to what they say and doesn't challenge them. I would love to have more women like that."
Rosen, who was raised around horses in Michigan and Connecticut, says she's not interested in teaching those who expect to have their horse ready for them, or want to stand around and braid manes. Instead, she explains, she wants to improve the connection between riders and horses, and allow that process to heal both. Many of her clients have had problems with their own horses, and turn to Rosen for relationship advice. "You have to ride without expectations," she says. "You don't know quite what is going to happen in a day, and [horses] have biorhythms, so some days are better than others."
Leading Cricket out of the barn, I hope he's having a good day -- somewhere in our conversation, Rosen has mentioned Christopher Reeve, and I can't help thinking that hopping on a horse's back might do more harm than good. But Rosen has also assured me that Cricket is as sweet and safe as they come. I place the bit in Cricket's mouth and hook the bridle around his ears. As Rosen juts out her thigh to be my stepping stool -- with no saddle, there are no stirrups, either -- I propel myself up and onto the horse.
We start with a few breathing exercises. Rosen claims these animals can feel a fly on their manes, and therefore respond to the way a human's heart and lungs are pumping. "Horse-feathers," I think skeptically as I take in our surroundings. Rosen's ranch sits along Huntington Gorge, and I can hear the water rushing just beyond the round pen's walls; wind rustles the leaves. And the deeper I breathe, the more Cricket's neck muscles seem to relax.
Now that we're both warmed up, Cricket and I begin to walk on our own; Rosen teaches me how to guide him with a gentle push of my calves and a slight raise of the reins. Amazingly, he follows, and I in turn feel my hips moving rhythmically with the way he's walking. I haven't told Rosen this, but I'm recovering from a serious surgery, and this is the best I've felt since leaving the hospital two months ago. Within a few minutes, I'm able to make Cricket stop with just a deep exhalation.
But just as I begin to relax, Rosen spooks me. "There's one more thing I have everyone do in the first lesson," she says. "Around the world." At first I don't understand, but then it clicks: She wants me to spin around on Cricket's back, with nothing holding me on. My heart starts racing and my hands tremble as I swing my left leg over his withers, then my right leg over his haunches; everything feels so slippery and unstable. Cricket, however, stands patiently, just shifting his hooves slightly underneath the turbulence. When I'm facing forward again, I feel the exhilaration that comes from conquering fear.
Back in the barn, Rosen's next student, Connie Demey of Westford, is prepping a horse named Lucy, who, she says, has taught her something similar to what I experienced today. "When I was younger I'd hop on anything and go for a ride," says Demey, 49. "But after my kids, I had built up fear." With people depending on her, she explains, she was less likely to take chances. But since beginning lessons with Rosen last August, Demey has progressed from bareback baby steps to racing figure-eights around barrels during her twice-weekly visits to New Moon Ranch. "I feel much more confident, and in a lot of different areas," she says. "It's a harmony with the horse instead of aggression; it's a partnership."