HERMON, Maine — Mercedes Severance’s forehead furrowed in concentration as she put Gromar through his paces in the indoor riding arena at Someday Farms, where the sun streamed in through the windows and the skylights during a recent lesson.
The quiet, petite 7-year-old from Carmel directed the dun-colored Fjord gelding to walk and then trot and walk again as her riding instructor, Rassy Mitchell, called out tips, pointers and reminders, such as how to tell a horse to slow down or speed up with a squeeze of the knees or lower legs.
“Can you go from ‘M’ to ‘Z’?” Mitchell called out, referring to the letters posted on the arena walls. Mercedes guided Gromar to the M on one wall to the Z on the opposite wall. Mitchell later explained that various sequences of letters form a path for the rider and horse to follow while engaging in dressage, an equestrian sport.
Mercedes is among nearly 20 area children and adults with special needs taking riding lessons at Hooves of Hope, the therapeutic riding program Mitchell founded at her parents’ farm located at 108 Fuller Road.
Though neither Mitchell nor the woman who accompanied Mercedes to her riding lesson this week were able to discuss the child’s diagnosis because they were bound by confidentiality rules, the woman said Mercedes’ mother, Wendy Severance, had this to say about Hooves of Hope:
“She’s a different child after her lessons. She opens up more. She smiles.”
“She’s much more talkative this year than she was last year,” she said.
So goes the bond between horse and human, the basis of therapeutic riding programs such as Hooves of Hope.
“It’s amazing what horses can do,” noted Abbie Hutchinson, 15, of Hampden, who owns two horses and is a Hooves of Hope volunteer.
Gromar is one of three Fjord horses Mitchell uses in her program, in large part because of their sturdy build and good temperament. The others are Pride, a gelding, and Greta, a mare.
Mitchell also uses four miniature horses, which she says are a hit with many of her students — including Mercedes, who said her favorite mini is Bucky.
“She always has to say hello and goodbye to them,” Mitchell said with a chuckle.
Like many of Mitchell’s students, Mercedes is training for the Special Olympics state equestrian competition, set for Oct. 1 at the Skowhegan Fairgrounds.
This will mark Mercedes second year of competition in equestrian events, which include dressage, trail skills and equitation, or form, Mitchell said.
Gearing up for her first equestrian Special Olympics competition is Sarah Albin.
The 32-year-old Bangor woman has competed at the Special Olympics before but not on a horse. She signed up for riding lessons after her sister Laura Albin learned about Mitchell’s program through a customer at Fiddleheads, the Bangor restaurant she co-owns.
Based on the feedback Sarah Albin received this week from her instructor and sister, she has made some serious progress in her riding skills.
Partly because her new ride, Greta, had a smoother trot than the geldings she had ridden before, Sarah Albin felt relaxed enough to release the “death grip” she had on the pommel of her Western saddle and really began to enjoy the ride.
And it showed. Her confidence grew as she and Greta moved effortlessly around the arena, alternating between walking and trotting.
Mitchell founded Hooves of Hope last summer after earning her certification from the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International, formerly known as the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association.
Mitchell, who holds a degree in equine business management from Johnson and Wales University, has been riding since she was 3 years old. Her first teacher was her mother, Sandi Oliver, who also is an accomplished horsewoman and has students of her own.
Mitchell, however, earns a living through her work in special education. A resident of Exeter, she is an ed tech at Glenburn Elementary School.
She said this week that Hooves of Hope has allowed her to combine two of her biggest passions — horses and work with people with special needs, such as physical, cognitive, mental and emotional problems.
For some students, riding lessons have become an incentive or reward for progress in other aspects of their lives, or for not engaging in a unproductive behavior, Mitchell said.
“‘I didn’t do it — I was wound right up but I didn’t do it.’” one student told Mitchell, because she didn’t want to miss her lesson.
For information about Hooves of Hope, visit its Facebook page.