NAUGATUCK — The grin on the face of 9-year-old Kayla Magnarella stretched from ear to ear as she bounced along atop Spring Hollow Jocasta, a Morgan horse at Hidden Acres Farm, on a crisp November afternoon.
After her lesson, Kayla slid of her horse and gave him a big hug.
“I love them all,” Kayla said of horses at Hidden Acres, a horseback riding center on Gabriel Drive, which offers therapeutic riding.
Kayla has Trisomy 21, a form of Down syndrome. She is one of 10 students participating in a therapeutic riding program at the farm and takes lessons once a week.
“She believes she knows everything from shoeing, to feeding, to riding,” said Kayla’s father, Al Magnarella.
Mary Simons founded the program with her husband, Theron, on the family farm in 2008 with their daughter’s horse, Berri. It became a 501 (C3) nonprofit in 2010.
Simons said she’s always had had an interest in working with people with disabilities. As a teenager, she volunteered at a children’s hospital in Prospect. She also worked at Southbury Training School before becoming a special education paraprofessional in the Naugatuck school system nine years ago.
Simons said the program at Hidden Acres has both emotional and physical benefits for people with disabilities. For many, Simons said, horseback riding helps build self esteem and confidence as well as strengthen core muscles and increase flexibility.
“It’s about focusing on someone’s abilities and helping them reach their potential,” said Jeanna Pellino, program director and instructor at Hidden Acres.
Instructor Cathy Langeurand said riding fosters a sense of empowerment and independence.
“We wanted to do this to enhance the lives of children and adults with disabilities,” Languerand said.
Participants in the program have various special needs, including cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and multiple sclerosis.
Pellino said each rider has specific goals, from increasing strength and attention to developing social skills. Some participants don’t actually ride the horses, but take lessons on grooming and interacting with horses, learning about tack and different breeds.
Currently, riders take individual lessons, but instructors plan to start giving group lessons soon. The barn is open year-round, with four semesters per year.
The program is certified through the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH), which teaches instructors to work with therapists to learn how to modify equestrian activities for people with special needs.
The horses also have to go through training to be a therapy horse. Therapy horses have to be patient, well-trained, and not spook.
“It really does take a special horse,” Simons said.
Participants pay a fee to ride, but the farm also offers a scholarship program for those who can’t afford it. Donations are welcome and tax deductible.
In its third year of operation, the Simons have an eye on expanding.
Currently, the farm has two Morgans and one Arabian for therapeutic lessons. Simons is looking to expand the number of participants in the program to 30 students by spring.
A handful of students from Derby schools will start lessons at Hidden Acres in December.
“As we increase the number of riders, we’ll be looking to increase the number of volunteers,” Simons said.
Some riders require three volunteers per participant, Simons said. Volunteers lead horses, walk beside riders, groom and tack the horses, and upkeep the facility.
The program currently has about 30 volunteers.
Besides therapeutic lessons, the barn also offers riding lessons to the general public and boards horses. Some of those students volunteer for the therapeutic lessons, according to Pellino.
Simons said students enjoy working with horses.
“It’s a place they truly love to come to and be a part of,” Simons said.
Kyla DeRisi of Hamden is one of the volunteers who started out as a rider. She started volunteering when the program started because she said she knew how horses could help people.
“All of the kids are really great and it’s very fun,” DeRisi said.
No experience with horses is necessary to volunteer. Those interested in participating or volunteering can call Hidden Acres at (203) 723-0633.