The sound of wind chimes, the crunch, smell and taste of mint leaves, oregano, dill and rosemary, followed by colorful flag designs that fuel the imagination. These are some of the sensory pieces students and community members delight in as they negotiate an outdoor trail on horseback at Turning Point Farm in Woodbridge on Wednesday evenings.
“Students connect in a very special way with these huge animals…It’s about having to focus, trusting this huge animal, “said Chapel Haven art teacher Tina Menchetti, who was instrumental in connecting Chapel Haven with the non-profit Animal Assisted Therapy Services, Inc. and its founder, CEO and director Chris Patella.
“It’s different than a human connection…I’m seeing a lot of growth in the students.” Patella opened the business after 30 years as a music teacher with the Bridgeport School system, believing it would be a nice part-time venture. Chris also went back to school to earn a masters’ degree in recreational therapy from Southern Connecticut State University. “It’s seven days a week,” she said of the successful new chapter in life that includes music therapy and therapy with the dogs.
Menchetti, friends with Patella, worked through all the red tape to get the class approved for Chapel Haven. The class of four filled quickly — they all want to return for additional sessions — and there’s a waiting list.”I like all of it,” said Chapel Haven student Margaret, who rides a horse named Diesel. “I like that I can breathe. If I feel stressed on Wednesday, I let it all out.”
The class begins with riding exercises in an indoor ring. The students walk on their horses with two assistants walking on either side for extra supports and safety. “When you’re ready to walk, what do you ask him?” one of the teachers, Diana Kruzshak asks students. “Walk on,” responds a student.”Good job,” Kruzshak reassures her.
‘How’s everyone feeling out there?” Kruzshak asks. “Stretch your arms, one arm in front of the other.” After students master that, she tells them, “Now you’ve got to stretch your leg. This is a little more challenging.” Before you know it, the students have Beanie Babies on their heads to help them learn balance. “If you drop your Beanie Babies you are asking your horses to ‘Whoa!'” she tells them.
“Everybody thank your horses — you did a very good job,” Kruzshak tells them after a few more exercises and before they head to the main course: An outdoor “sensory” trail filled with sounds, colors, smells. Just the crunching of the leaves under the horses’ feet adds to the ambiance.
The first stop on the trail is about beautiful sound, so they touch the wind chimes attached to trees to make them “sing.” Patella has plans to put rider-level boxes there and put musical instruments in them. Kruzshak asks students to name a song and sing a bit of it. Stuart breaks into, “Teenage Wasteland” by “The Who” –he’s wearing a band T-shirt of the same — and Kruzshak, clearly a Who fan tells him it’s a good choice.
On the backs of the 1,200 or so pound animals, they proceed up a slope and stop where colorful flags with designs hang from the trees. Kruzshak asks them to come up with a story based on the flags and they do. Stuart, who rides Sophie, can’t think of one at first, but then with a little prompting, he delivers big time with a detailed tale that begins, “I’m in an open field, roaming around…”.Kruzshak tells Stuart: “Thank you for bringing me there. That was a beautiful mental image.”
Ahead, there’s more natural beauty, before they return to the ring to wrap up the evening. They visit the herb garden and not only smell, taste and feel the plants, but get conversation going when teachers ask questions such as , “Mmmm, oregano. What kind of food does that remind you of?”
Chapel Haven student Kimber describes her time on horse Teddy as “beautiful.”Kruzshak said there is something about being on top of a horse that’s “empowering.” “The interaction and stimulation you get from riding a horse is something you can’t get anywhere else,” she said. “They get up on these horses and they instantly sit up tall and proud.”
Patella said she believes horses, dogs, guinea pigs, rabbits, all somehow connect us to our roots as animals. She said horses are like “psychosocial magic.”She said the sensory trail, “unleashes creativity,” especially for those with language disabilities. There is such an adrenalin rush and release of endorphins that abilities are heightened.
“I think we’re doing truly wonderful work,” Patella said. She said volunteers get much out of it too. Patella said the trail is a work in progress and there’s more to come.
Menchetti, who helps with class each week, said: “While they’re on the horses, even the instructors say, ‘I’ve never seen bigger smiles.”