Heads Up Special Riders offers ‘safe’ environment between horses, those with special needs

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Harrison Huguenin gives Cheyenne a kiss.JENNIFER AMATO/STAFF
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Harrison Huguenin of Franklin takes a ride on Cheyenne, with the assistance of Heads Up Special Riders volunteer Andrew Leung of South Brunswick, at Hasty Acres in Kingston.JENNIFER AMATO/STAFF
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Sohan Dinesh of Princeton takes a riding lesson on Comanche from Heads Up Special Riders members Andrew Leung of South Brunswick, left to right, owner Clare Russell, Georgia Elek of North Brunswick and Sue Scott of Rocky Hill at Hasty Acres in Kingston.JENNIFER AMATO/STAFF
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Harrison Huguenin gives Cheyenne a kiss.JENNIFER AMATO/STAFF
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Harrison Huguenin of Franklin takes a ride on Cheyenne, with the assistance of Heads Up Special Riders volunteer Andrew Leung of South Brunswick, at Hasty Acres in Kingston.JENNIFER AMATO/STAFF
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Sohan Dinesh of Princeton takes a riding lesson on Comanche from Heads Up Special Riders members Andrew Leung of South Brunswick, left to right, owner Clare Russell, Georgia Elek of North Brunswick and Sue Scott of Rocky Hill at Hasty Acres in Kingston.JENNIFER AMATO/STAFF
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KINGSTON – Harrison Huguenin is not very verbal, but one phrase he repeats on Fridays is “horseback riding.”

The 16-year-old Franklin resident has autism and various autoimmune disorders, so he looks forward to his horseback riding lesson through Heads Up Special Riders each week.

“He benefits a lot,” his mother Lisa said. “One, he likes it. Two, I think it helps him strength-wise. He likes the horses. He likes to squeeze them and hug them. … For him, it’s been really good.”

Lisa Huguenin said the horses her son meets at Hasty Acres in Kingston afford him a chance to bond. At home, Harrison enjoys looking at pictures of horses, and drawing them.

“It helps with his independence,” she said. “It opens his life to doing more things.”

Clare Russell – who was given riding lessons as a birthday present 25 years ago and within a decade decided to quit her job so she could “touch a horse everyday” – said the benefits of equine therapy vary per rider. For example, one rider who has been in speech therapy for 18 months said “walk onto horse” as her first words. Or, someone who is mobility-challenged and in a wheelchair can finally see the world from a higher height atop a horse, offering them a different perspective. She said there have been studies proving that rhythm, such as the pace a horse walks, can be soothing to those with autism.

Russell said the specific horses used in the program are evaluated and trained to ensure they are adaptable to the riders’ needs.

“They absolutely do know they are dealing with a different situation,” she said of the horses. “They have a certain personality. They are more intelligent.”

Offering more than “just a pony ride,” Russell said there are a variety of therapies and intensities available to improve socialization, balance, anxiety and special needs because “these horses are safe” and provide a sense of connectivity.

Sohan Dinesh, a 9-year-old from Princeton, has been riding for two years. He also swims, ice skates, rollerblades, cycles, goes go karting and “runs around everywhere.”

“I want him to see he is happy about doing something. He looks forward to doing it,” his father said.

Riding takes place year-round, either out in the field or inside of the barn. With practice, riders can “graduate” from Heads Up and instead join Natalie Pontillo’s other riding programs at Hasty Acres.

Russell has 10 volunteers who assist with getting the horses ready, grooming them, saddling them, preparing the gear, picking their feet, tacking them with equipment and bringing them to the riding area.

“The volunteers are great. They run the place for me. There is no way I could do this without them,” Russell said.

Sue Scott of Rocky Hill has been volunteering for almost four years. She said she grew up around horses, so as a retiree she wanted to return to the stables.

“They [the horses] give you nice feedback if you’re nice to them. They are very intelligent. Gentle. Beautiful,” she said.

She said she also enjoys watching the children progress during their lessons.

“You get to see them grow up and develop. You get to know their parents. The whole experience is very rewarding,” she said.

Heads Up Special Riders was established in 1990 as the original therapy riding program by the Higgins family, who have owned most of the Kingston area since Revolutionary times, according to Russell. Riders age four and older who have any type of special need, from autism to multiple sclerosis to mobility issues to even a fear of horses, can take a half-hour lesson on Monday or Friday afternoons.

Pontillo – who owns Hasty Acres on Laurel Avenue, with eight boarders, a string of school horses and a camp program – lends her most “personable” horses to the Heads Up program.

To become a student or volunteer, visit headsupspecialriders.com.

Contact Jennifer Amato at jamato@newspapermediagroup.com.