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Jacob Tiller with Milky Way at UpReach Theraputic Equestrian Center. (Photo by Cheryl Senter.)

Jacob Tiller with Milky Way at UpReach Theraputic Equestrian Center. (Photo by Cheryl Senter.)

Improving lives with the help of horses

A New Hampshire Charitable Foundation field-of-interest fund, created by a generous donor, supports equine services and other animal therapy in New Hampshire.

Meet Maggie, Milky Way and Peppy.

They are among a herd of horses, who, along with their Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International-credentialed humans, provide Equine Assisted Services at UpReach Therapeutic Equestrian Center in Goffstown.

For 30 years, UpReach has been dedicated to the mission of improving the lives of people who have cognitive and/or physical disabilities, children and families who’ve experienced trauma, veterans and first responders, and people in substance misuse recovery.

As an internationally accredited center, UpReach specializes in Equine Assisted Services, which include:

  • Therapy – providing horses and certified equine specialists to partner with licensed mental health, occupational and physical therapy professionals and social workers;
  • Horsemanship – offering therapeutic horseback riding or carriage driving programs, in which participants drive a horse-drawn cart;
  • Learning – including horses in non-therapy services to help participants learn teamwork, responsibility and relationship-building skills.

Last year, UpReach served more than 550 participants ranging from age three to 90. They include people with autism, Down syndrome, multiple sclerosis or cerebral palsy, as well as veterans and first responders and children and families coping with trauma, substance misuse or the effects of physical or sexual abuse.

A New Hampshire Charitable Foundation field-of-interest fund, created in 2015 by a generous donor, supports equine services and other animal therapy in New Hampshire. Some of the nonprofit organizations providing such services offer year-round programs with indoor arenas. Others are seasonal. Many have built partnerships with schools, hospitals, nursing homes and other organizations and sometimes bring their animals to those locations.

The fund makes about $120,000 in grants to organizations around the state each year, and is positioned to do so in perpetuity.

At UpReach, horses and ponies, supported by nine full-time professionals and more than 130 volunteers each week, offer a special connection to improve lives.

“The horses provide a great mirror for us as humans. They don’t care what you look like, what kind of car you drive, or where you have been in your past. They don’t care who you think you are – horses’ lives depend on their ability to be completely present in the moment, and to connect with them, we need to learn how to do that too,” said Kathryn Conway, UpReach operations manager.

In addition to the traditional therapeutic riding and carriage driving program, UpReach has developed an innovative “unmounted” program, in which participants work with horses in ways other than riding. One such program, ‘Resilience Reins’ is designed for children and families who have experienced trauma.

“It’s difficult for many trauma victims to trust people and some may not know what a healthy relationship looks like,” said Unmounted Program Director Kristen McGraw. “When children come to UpReach and are guided by trained staff on how to build a healthy relationship with a horse or pony, those lessons are transferrable in helping them learn how to build healthy and positive relationships with others.”

UpReach is working with the University of Alabama to measure efficacy and record outcomes for research about equine assisted trauma intervention.

Kim and Steve Tiller of Merrimack have watched UpReach make a profound difference in the lives of their children, who have Down syndrome.

Their son Ty, who is 20, has been riding for eight years. He uses very few words, but, notable among them is “horse,” his description for the day each week that he goes to UpReach.

“It’s his way of letting me know that this is what he looks forward to every week,” Kim said.

Riding has helped Ty physically and emotionally.

“He knows what to do to get the horse ready. He puts the equipment away and gives the horse a snack,” Kim said. “It builds him in so many different ways, not just strength-wise, but his independence, listening, communicating – so many pieces fit together for him there.”

Kim describes her son Jacob, 16, as “a peanut.” He is just shy of 4’ 10” tall. He was a rider for most of his seven years at UpReach – at first building core muscle strength and balance.

“He used to fall a lot at home when he was younger,” Kim said. “When he started ‘horse’ (the family’s term for UpReach), we saw that he was getting stronger, that those core muscles were working better and he wasn’t falling as much.”

Because of a hip condition, Jacob no longer rides. He spends most of his time at UpReach with a Shetland pony named Milky Way, building communication skills and responsibility.  He brushes, cleans hooves, gives baths, feeds and walks the pony.

“Jacob has picked up on why they need hay, why they need to be brushed and it transfers to home and school,” Kim said. “He knows where things go, where his locker is and what’s expected of him.”

Kim’s daughter Ping, 10, had an intense fear of animals, including friendly neighborhood dogs.  Ping also struggles to communicate. She started attending UpReach this fall, learning how to care for the horses.

“Even the first time, she was so calm,” Kim said. “The horse looked at her and she didn’t panic.”

Kim said the program has helped the children grow in a safe, caring environment.

“These horses have some sort of magic,” she said.

UpReach Development Director Sara McCarthy shares the wonder.

“To see the impact that these horses and staff make on so many people, it’s unbelievable,” she said. “To be a small part of that and share it makes this such a happy place for me, too.”