At Morven Park, a unique kind of equine therapy


Devora Exline, left, and instructor Mary Jo Beckman, along with Exline’s service dog, in the wooden cart that has temporarily replaced the thousand-pound carriage that the driving program used originally. (Loudoun Therapeutic Riding)

Devora Exline arrived at Morven Park in Leesburg on a warm July afternoon with her faithful service dog at her side and a pin that read “Horses Are My Therapy” fastened to her turquoise blouse. Andy, a friendly Haflinger pony, was waiting for her in the barn. But Exline did not go there to ride.

A former Navy medic of 26 years, Exline was there to drive a horse-drawn carriage, a new form of equine therapy offered by the nonprofit Loudoun Therapeutic Riding program based at Morven Park’s equestrian facilities. For those who might not be able to ride a horse or who prefer to try driving, the program is a unique alternative with equally substantial therapeutic benefits, said Joanne Hart, executive director of Loudoun Therapeutic Riding.

Exline, 45, who suffered injuries to her shoulder and her back during deployments in Kuwait and Iraq, and who has had post-traumatic stress disorder diagnosed, said that she has experienced profound benefits through working with horses.

“By the time I’m done riding or driving, I get my feet on the ground, and — where did the pain go?” she said. “Before I get on, I’m in so much pain. When I get off, I’m not.”

As Loudoun Therapeutic Riding marks its 40th anniversary this year, Hart said that the organization — which includes therapeutic riding, hippotherapy (using the movements of the horse to assist with physical therapy) and summer camps among its services — is continuing to grow and diversify. And it is continuing to focus on its therapeutic carriage-driving program, which was launched last year and which has already served about a dozen people, including wounded military veterans, people with disabilities and teens with behavioral disorders.

The program is led by Mary Jo Beckman, a retired Navy commander who also co-founded the Caisson Platoon Equine-Assisted Riding Program at Fort Meyer in Arlington County, where wounded service members and veterans ride the horses that are used to pull caissons during military funerals at Arlington National Cemetery. The wheelchair-accessible carriage used by Loudoun Therapeutic Riding came from the Fort Meyer program, Beckman said. An Army veterinarian named Mariah Kochavi was the first to drive it there. After Kochavi died in 2009 at age 29, the carriage was dedicated to her memory.

“There were, and are, so many people at Walter Reed [National Military Medical Center] who can benefit from the horses,” Beckman said. “You see them make great progress.

Driving a carriage can be of particular use to students who are hoping to operate a car, Beckman said, because the activity strengthens spacial awareness and tests hand-eye coordination. It also helps to build upper body strength, improves balance and develops motor skills — making it a very useful practice for students with injuries or illnesses that have left them physically or cognitively compromised.

After the wheelchair-adaptive carriage sat unused at Fort Meyer for a year, Beckman suggested that it be transferred to the Loudoun Therapeutic Riding program. Hart said she was immediately excited by the possibility of offering therapeutic driving to clients who might not be able to ride.

When the thousand-pound carriage arrived in January 2013, Hart and Beckman began an 11-month hunt for the right horse to pull it.

“It’s a lot for any horse to be able to handle,” Beckman said. “The horse has to be bomb-proof . . . very well trained and very well seasoned.”

They found a draft mare in the fall that was a perfect fit, Beckman said, and several clients who use wheelchairs experienced driving a carriage for the first time at Morven Park. But after the mare became lame this year, the heavy carriage was taken out of rotation, and a search began for a replacement horse.

In the meantime, Beckman continues to conduct sessions with a smaller wooden cart — the one that Exline uses for her sessions with Andy the pony.

Back in the barn, before the carriage is connected to Andy’s harness, Exline’s therapy session began with a thorough grooming. She ran a soft-bristled brush over Andy’s golden withers and then spritzed his belly and ankles with fly spray. She talked to Andy softly, patting him on the flank after she cleaned each hoof.

“People do much better with their lesson if they go through the grooming process, because they’re bonding with the horse during that time,” Beckman said, supervising from a distance. Beyond the physical and cognitive benefits of equine interaction, she said, horses also offer an opportunity to form a non-
threatening and non-judgmental emotional connection.

Hart said she hopes that carriage driving will become a more prominent option for many of the organization’s clients — who range in age from toddlers to senior citizens — and particularly for wounded veterans. Loudoun Therapeutic Riding has a program partnership with Boulder Crest Retreat for Wounded Warriors in Bluemont, a rural retreat for wounded service members and veterans, some of whom participate in equine therapy at Morven Park.

“There’s a lot we want to do. We have plans to expand our program,” Hart said. “We would really like to focus on the veteran population and support our wounded warriors and their families.”

In a sunny meadow outside the barn, Andy pulled the cart carrying Beckman, Exline and her service dog in wide circles. Exline steered the carriage through a line of brightly colored plastic buckets, carefully following Beckman’s directions as the wheels cleared each obstacle. By the end of the lesson, Exline said, she felt a sense of peace restored, a response she has come to expect from her time spent here.

“It makes all the difference,” she said, back on the ground, grinning as she unfastened her black riding helmet. Her body felt better, she said. Her balance seemed better.

And it’s not just the physical pains that are soothed, she added.

“You don’t always have someone to talk to,” she said. “But you can always talk to the horses.”

Caitlin Gibson is a local news and features writer for The Washington Post.
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