HARTFORD — A year ago, Carlos Michaud wouldn’t have listened to anyone, wouldn’t have followed directions, wouldn’t have looked anyone in the eye. And he certainly wouldn’t have been happy about being asked to. 

But on a recent afternoon, the 10-year-old bantered with an aide and giggled as he rode miniature horse Mr. Tom around the ring. He adjusted his legs in the stirrups when instructor Kayla Hilton told him to, nudged Mr. Tom forward with a gentle squeeze of his legs when she told him to. He generally looked comfortable, confident and at ease, a small boy in command of a small horse.

It’s the kind of transformation that Amy Shaw, co-founder of therapeutic horsemanship center At a Bend in the Road, sees every day. 

“I still don’t understand the hows or whys of why it works, but it does,” she said. “And it’s happening over and over again for the kids who come.”

Amy Shaw and her husband, Warren, started At a Bend in the Road from their Hartford home two years ago. The nonprofit’s mission is to help traumatized children  — mostly those who have been adopted or are in foster care — by providing occupational therapy, play therapy, counseling and therapeutic riding. Programs are free to families.

The Shaws know the need firsthand. They adopted their daughter from Siberia in 2001. Because she was a baby — just 9 months old when they brought her home — they thought she couldn’t have been traumatized. They were wrong. 

“We had extreme behaviors,” Amy said. “Safety for everybody was a major concern. We got to a point where we really didn’t know if we’d be able to make it, to stay intact as a family.”

Doctors diagnosed complex post-traumatic stress disorder and said it was the result of the abuse their daughter had suffered as a baby.

The Shaws were advised to cut stimulation and reduce activities. But at the same time, their daughter was supposed to get physical therapy, occupational therapy, counseling and equine therapy. 

“Our problem is, we live here,” Amy said of Hartford, a small, rural town in Oxford County. “We always had to go to southern Maine.”

Hours of travel negated any benefits of the therapy.

Looking to replicate some of their daughter’s therapies at home, the Shaws agreed to board a friend’s two mini horses. About the size of a large dog, the animals were too small to be intimidating, but big enough to command respect. 

It didn’t take long for their daughter to connect with the horses in a way she never had with people. She had to watch their body language to predict what they would do or how they were feeling. She had to stay calm around them. 

“With horses, she could regulate and realize her emotions much better,” Warren said. 

Their daughter still raged sometimes, but those outbursts became less frequent and less intense. The whole family was calmer, happier. 

“We were thinking, ‘What about other families who are not in a situation where they’re able to do this?'” Amy said. 

Two years and a dozen animals later, the couple has a riding ring in their front yard, a counseling office in their basement and 30 children and teenagers a week who come for occupational, riding or other therapy. 

Although the 15-acre farm has sheep, goats, Angora rabbits and one full-size horse, it’s the four easygoing miniature horses who get the most attention. The smallest children can ride the minis; bigger kids and teens work on training, walking and horse care. 

“I just think he’s awesome,” said 11-year-old Alexander LeBlanc of his favorite horse, Sampson. “He’s not really the biggest of the horses, so I’m not able to ride him. But I lead him, I work with him, I walk him. I help him with his nipping problem. What I do is I just work with him.”  

The Shaws no longer board their friend’s animals; the mini horses all belong to them. All are rescues whose early lives — abuse and abandonment — mirror the early lives of the children they help.

“One of our horses had been put in a dilapidated barn,” Amy said. “There was a storm and so the barn fell in on this horse and he wasn’t discovered for four days. You wouldn’t believe how many kids connect with that horse and that story.” 

“Because many kids, their story is they were locked in a room while their parents were out, or locked in their bedroom or a closet,” Warren said. “So they relate to that.”   

The Shaws, their volunteers and therapists have seen the little horses work near-miracles. A child who was unwilling to talk suddenly opened up while working with the horses. A child who was angry and defiant gradually calmed around the farm animals and learned to follow directions while working with them. A child who always felt different and alone at school found acceptance and friendship in horses, who are also different.

“When we train the horses or work with them, a lot of things can connect to what the kids feel,” said Kayla Hilton, a volunteer riding instructor working toward her certification in therapeutic riding. “The same way we will calm a horse is very similar to the way you can calm a child. But when it’s pointed toward the horse, the child can view that rather than all the attention being on themselves.”   

The Shaws say At a Bend in the Road has helped parents, too. To the outside world, their children appear unruly and undisciplined. To those at the farm, they’re just dealing with trauma.

“The families feel so accepted and unguarded here,” Warren said.

The Shaws open the farm to families three days a week. Enrollment is full, but they hope to expand their space to take more kids. 

With help from two major grants — $20,000 from the Davis Family Foundation and a $10,000 matching grant from a donor — the Shaws plan to erect a building to house their occupational therapy and counseling programs and add physical therapy, speech therapy, tutoring and other programs. They also hope to build a covered riding arena.

The farm, which runs completely on donations, is always in need of help. Donations are funneled directly into the farm and its programs. Two therapists bill insurance but take no money from the farm or its families. All other workers are volunteers, including the Shaws and their 17-year-old son.

Their daughter, now 14, works on the farm, too. She still struggles with PTSD, but At a Bend in the Road has made it easier.

“We’re still on the road and we will be for some time, if not for a lifetime,” Warren said. “But I also say the progress has been incredible.”

Have an idea for Animal Tales? Call Lindsay Tice at 689-2854 or email her at [email protected].


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