Jodie O'Connell experienced the healing power of horses at an early age.
"For what ever reason, I was one of those kids who got picked on," she says. And horses were her refuge.
O'Connell looks far from a victim of bullying today. In a flowing dress suit, red hair swept behind her, she's sipping coffee outside the Pittsfield Starbucks while discussing plans for her nonprofit therapeutic riding organization, Destiny's Ride, based at Whis pering Pines Farm here.
Destiny's Ride served an average 38 riders in Berkshire County last year, most of whom have disabilities. She hopes to get that figure to 50, as well as to implement "Equine Services for Veterans and Military" through the Pro fessional Association of Thera peutic Horsemanship (PATH).
And, she is currently training three individuals planning to compete in the Williamstown sectionals of the Special Olympics on Sept. 16.
O'Connell is passionate about sharing what horses have given her. In addition to comforting her as a shy adolescent, they were summoned to a more traumatic concern when, at the age 16, she lost her right hand in a work accident.
On the first day of summer vacation in 1985, O'Connell went to work at a small market in her hometown of Branford, Conn. A man came in to order hamburger, giving her specific instructions to grind the meat three times.
She recalls counting the times the meat had run through the grinder, and next seeing her fingers get caught in the blades.
From that day on she would have to learn how to negotiate life without the use of her dominant hand.
But she was back on a horse four weeks later.
"I was just waiting for the doctor's OK. It was never an issue. I had to have horses in my life."
O'Connell didn't tell her parents when she headed back to the barn that first time. But they found out.
"They could tell," she said. "Most people can see when I get off a horse I'm high as a kite. But after the ‘Oh, my God,' wore off, they were happy and proud."
Her father, Jack O'Connell, who died last November, was particularly supportive.
"He pushed me," O'Connell says. "He never let me give up. He told me ‘you'll always have to work harder.' And he was 100 percent Irish. You didn't want to make that man mad at you!"
With her arm still bandaged, O'Connell got back in the saddle, without the benefit of physical or occupational therapy.
"I don't know if it was really that available," she says, "or if I was just a difficult 16 year old."
She did have one session with a prosthetist.
"He was trying to show me how to sweep a floor using my prosthetic. And he was just so mean. I thought you cut off your hand and then show me how to do this."
Her first post-accident ride was on a beloved quarter horse, Molly, the first horse O'Connell had ever ridden, at a Branford farm where the owner let some of the local kids ride for free.
"My friend Erica, who was with me, said ‘Don't take this the wrong way, but you ride better with one hand.' I guess I was just using more awareness."
She also used visualization, something she says she continues to use as an instructor.
"I had to swap sides with everything, so I always had to be one step ahead. It's the same approach as an instructor. I have to assess my student's needs and adapt the lesson to them."
In the accident's early aftermath, however, O'Connell was not so sure how she'd maneuver through some of life's other aspects. Nor if others would perceive her differently. But the horses helped with the transition.
"Riding made me feel as if I'm in control of life," she says. "It gave me the courage to do other things."
By the end of the summer, she was in the pool with her high school swim team. In a couple of years she'd be off to college, and not much longer after that, start raising a family.
Ellen Kaye Gehrke, professor of Community Health at National University in San Diego, Calif., and author of numerous studies on human and equine relationships, says her research indicates "when people ride, their autonomic nervous system comes into balance."
When asked how the horse/ human relationship might work if the rider is coming from a traumatic background, Gehrke cites a horse's natural herd mentality.
"They're social animals, they're herd animals. They can sense when someone will hurt them, and they can also sense when someone needs help."
Gehrke suggests that "there might be a magic that can't be measured" between humans and horses.
Great Barrington psychotherapist Janet Doucette, who specializes in behavior-modification and biofeedback, points out that riding offers an aspect of stewardship not often available to the developmentally disabled.
"This can be a huge benefit for the developmentally disabled because they are often being cared for in many ways. At least, for the time they are with the horse, something else is in their care."
Doucette, an equestrian who started riding at age 42, believes riding's emphasis on left/right coordination helps balance the brain's blood flow and increases blood flow to the cerebellum. Rein work can improve fine motor skills. And the often nonverbal communication between horse and rider can be a pathway for individuals who have to work harder to communicate.
She also points to an aspect that can be therapeutic to the "abled" as well as the disabled, children and adults.
"There's a basic level of communication with a horse," she says. "And that's trust. Getting a 1,500 pound animal to trust you can help you trust yourself."
Since her twenties, O'Con nell knew she wanted to teach therapeutic riding.
"I felt it was my destiny. That's why I named my organization ‘Destiny's Ride.'"
But raising two kids (Tylor, now 15, and Shayla, 12) and working full time at KB Toys' corporate office in Pittsfield, O'Connell didn't have the time. Until destiny threw her another curve ball.
She went through a difficult divorce in 2006. Then KB Toys folded. While job-searching, she became a PATH-certified instructor and looked into setting up a nonprofit organization.
By 2009 Destiny's Ride was in motion.
O'Connell, who lives in Ghent, N.Y., and manages the T. J. Maxx store in Pittsfield, finds herself in an equestrian version of Virginia Woolf's working woman's dilemma. But rather than a room of her own, it's a barn of her own she yearns for.
She would like to see Destiny's funds expand into more therapy horses and equipment instead of just going into board.
Her two present horses, King, a large, gentle quarter horse, and Cayden, a lighter-framed, Arabian/quarter horse, seem suited to their work. Cayden, particularly, is a people horse.
"I learn a lot about a rider by Cayden's reaction to them," O'Connell says. "If they're more scared, he's more gentle. If they have a bossy demeanor, he might challenge them by dropping his head so they have to refigure the reins. It's the man-in-the-mirror effect."
A majority of O'Connell's current students have developmental disabilities.
Martha and Don Beliveau of Adams have two children with autism, Tucker, 15 and Karlie, 16, riding with O'Connell. They participate in lessons as well, acting as leaders or sidewalkers, which is often done by volunteers. After four lessons, Tucker was able to ride independently.
"This has been fantastic for their self-esteem," reports Mar tha Beliveau. "I see Tucker looking so proud up on that horse, and it makes me so happy."
Joe Clark of Becket has also noticed a change in his son, Buddy, 12, since he's been going to Destiny's Ride. Buddy too has autism.
"If he's a bit hyper before a lesson, the riding calms him down," says Clark. "Jody does a great job with the kids."
O'Connell wants therapeutic riding to reach a broader audience than those diagnosed with a physical or developmental disability.
"Maybe you're suffering from depression," she says. "Maybe you were abused. Or you lost your husband. Spend a half hour on a horse, being happy."
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