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Lower Connecticut River Valley Region Farms
Featured Farmer | Kitty Stalsburg | High Hopes Therapeutic Riding

Hippo-therapy sounds like a float-with-the-beasts Disney attraction.  If you haven't heard of it, you probably have heard of therapeutic horseback riding -- there's an internationally famous place for it in Old Lyme.   High Hopes Therapeutic Riding uses hippo-therapy as just one of its equine-based professional practices, tailored to each of its clients.   How Kitty Stalsburg, its Executive Director, became a Featured Farmer makes interesting reading.  It's an eye-opener on the idea of a "care farm", specifically based on equine-facilitated services, that has achieved considerable success.  This success incorporates a sensitive merger of strategy and culture and, yes, even hippo-therapy.


The concept of "farm" is more broadly used now than in the past.  A wind farm, for example, harnesses the wind with turbines to produce energy.  A care farm harnesses therapy in a farm or "nature" setting to facilitate healing in children and adults.   Like wind in a turbine, these therapeutic activities generate energy which dedicated staff and (often) animals convert into human power, individual growth and personal accomplishment.  This is "green medicine" in a rural and admittedly risky atmosphere involving contact with creatures weighing half a ton.


High Hopes can be found at 36 Town Woods Road in Old Lyme, home to 20 horses on 120 acres, mostly pasture, with indoor and outdoor riding facilities and three miles of riding trails.  It considers itself a "One Health Initiative" community, taking responsibility for people, horses and the land in a moral environment.  High Hopes is a farm-designated non-profit, and its development rights are deeded to the State.  Its footprint is limited to the original grazing land, bordered by woodland and wetlands.


Each week High Hopes caters to some 170 participants, ages four to 74, on foot or in a wheelchair, with more than 30 different diagnoses — autism, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, multiple sclerosis, amputation, stroke, visual and hearing impairments, emotional and behavioral disorders, intellectual delay, traumatic brain injury, PTSD and more.   About 60% ride, 30% are unmounted, and the rest are involved in carriage driving.  The professional staff of 20 full- and part-time paid employees is multi-faceted in background and training, whether this is in psychology, education, physical or occupational therapy, speech pathology, horsemanship or medicine. 


Kitty started as a volunteer at High Hopes over 35 years ago.  She has a B.S. in Animal Science from Cornell and a certificate in Nonprofit Management from Harvard Business School.  She is also the author of two definitive books on equine-assisted therapy.  Kitty's talented and committed workforce includes a formidable volunteer contingent, ages 14 and up, who give their time and energy to help support High Hopes and the people it serves.  The organization couldn't function without them. 


Many of the students have autism.  Working with horses helps to quiet repetitive thoughts and movements.  It teaches students fine and gross motor control, social and emotional skills, teamwork and trust.  In grooming or tacking up a horse, driving a carriage, or riding a trail, riders learn to listen, follow instructions and complete a task in the necessary sequence.  They learn the value of caring activities and useful work.  Students overcome fears and inhibitions to embrace engagement, communication, adaptability, optimism and confidence in their ability to control events.  They learn about their own powers and how to exercise them in a safe, appropriate way.  They learn to feel they are a valuable member of a community and thrive in atmosphere of clarity and safety.


Siting astride a horse or pony is not a requirement.  There is unlimited unmounted work-- learning about tack and stable routine, horse care, and what carriages are all about.  Special programs include Resiliency Reins, camp weeks, field trips, recovery from addiction, memory care, and sensory needs.  Above all, High Hopes offers individualized therapy in a setting based on sport, recreation and fun. 


Carriage driving shares the benefits of seated riding in important ways.  It increases core strength, improves balance and coordination, prioritizes emotional self-regulation, and stimulates problem-solving.  Drivers learn to make choices and develop a relationship with the horses.  Then there is the social interaction with other students, instructors and volunteers, all in a spirit of mutual trust and respect.


The Resilience Reins program is for children in the 10-17 age range who have suffered some kind of trauma.  Each 7-week after-school program is limited to six students.  A café for parents runs concurrently, offering an opportunity for conversation for those who welcome it. 


High Hopes’ program for Veterans fosters activities that typically build a partnership with an equine friend.  The welcoming, outdoor environment showcases a healing and stress-relieving oasis.  The ability to remain relaxed in the present-- as opposed to hyper-vigilant-- is remembered and practiced.  Most activities are small-group, unmounted, and completely tailored to varying schedules and needs.


High Hopes is a business and clearly a successful one.  Although it doesn't advertise, there is a huge participant waiting list.  Ability to pay is never a requisite.  What does its success look like?  Success is the clientele that trusts High Hopes to provide effective and reliable services.  Success is recognition and validation that High Hopes makes a difference in people's lives.


The Board of Trustees guides this 501(C)3 organization much like any other business:  key are strategy, capability, capital and culture-- "the way we do things around here".  The culture of an organization is a fragile thing.  It's a system of shared beliefs and behaviors that develops over time to shape how people work together.  Strategy is important but can be undone in the face of a culture that's not fit for purpose.  

At High Hopes, the values and identity of the organization align with the people who work there and the students who benefit from its existence.  "Culture is the secret sauce that keeps employees motivated and clients happy," wrote Jacob M. Engel in Forbes.  But culture is more than creating a great place to work.  It's an alignment of vision and values from top to bottom.


Kitty embodies a warm blend of humility and confidence.  Integrity is evident in everything she does. Core values are first and foremost based on the principles she lives by.  She believes in making a difference for clients and employees who care about each other and about empowering everyone to do their best.  It's no surprise that High Hopes mirrors Kitty's philosophy and takes its culture very seriously.


But what is hippo-therapy?  It's a particular form of neuromuscular therapy that takes advantage of a horse's anatomy and gait.  Horseback riding is a reaction-based activity.  Each movement a horse makes requires a reaction by the rider in a mirror-image manner.  Repetitive and rhythmic reactions have been found to create measurable improvements in neurological function and sensory processing which can then be generalized to a wide range of daily activities. 


A serious business is hippo-therapy:  a targeted treatment; a scientifically designed methodology using the gait, tempo, rhythm, repetition and cadence of horses' movements to improve muscle symmetry, postural stability, balance deficits and body awareness in the participants.  All this in an atmosphere of fun and adventure, just like High Hopes Therapeutic Riding itself.

By Sandra Childress | April 2024

About the Author: Sandra Childress tends to her herbs on 1/3 acre in Essex.  She is reluctantly moving toward growing them exclusively in pots above ground as an appeasement to her creaking joints.  If it's edible and medicinal, Sandra is willing to give it a try.  If they have a perennial inclination in an east-facing exposure, she's a dévotee for life.  Hello sage, rosemary and thyme. 

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