Physical and emotional benefits: Horseback riding proves therapeutic at Vision Farm

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Jack Castro enjoys weekly rides on Batman, a quarter horse at Vision Farm. Owned and operated by Michelle Kinoshita and Kalia Goo, lessons at the farm help students strengthen their core and improve balance. (COURTESY PHOTO/VISION FARM)
Ellen Pavitt receives a kiss from Batman after a recent class. She believes he can read human emotions and respond to them. (LANDRY FULLER/SPECIAL TO WEST HAWAII TODAY)
Lynn Holman is aided mounting a horse at Vision Farm Wednesday. Michelle Kinoshita and Nancy Bloomfield have made it possible for paraplegic clients to ride horses under Therapeutic Horsemanship of Hawaii. (LIZ NAKAYAMA/SPECIAL TO WEST HAWAII TODAY)

WAIMEA — Michelle Kinoshita and her daughter, Kalia Goo, are among the lucky ones. They love what they do for a living and can’t wait to go to work.

And no wonder. Their outdoor office is located at Vision Farm, their business on Waimea’s wet side. In addition to an indoor and outdoor riding arena, the facility is surrounded by lush greenery with more acreage for their horses to roam.

The mother-daughter duo teach Western horsemanship to students of all ages. They also offer therapeutic horseback riding for physically and mentally disabled clients who, once up in the saddle, are able to experience the joy and freedom that comes from being released from shackles of any kind.

“I think it’s a spiritual thing,” Kinoshita said. “You may not realize it, but horses have a very healing power, whether it’s riding them, petting them or grooming them. I’ve seen amazing things that horses have done that we couldn’t do.”

Born and raised in Honolulu, she didn’t have a horse growing up, but always loved them. Kinoshita learned to ride while in high school with friends who owned horses.

She and her family moved to the Big Island 26 years ago for increased opportunities to ride and teach horsemanship. Kinoshita operated Iolani Stables in Honokaa for 14 years before starting Vision Farm in 2014.

Vision Farm operates under the auspices of Therapeutic Horsemanship of Hawaii (THH), a nonprofit 501(c) organization. Another THH in Kona is operated by Nancy Bloomfield, and their main branch is in Waimanalo on Oahu.

Therapeutic Horsemanship of Hawaii is managed by Bloomfield’s daughter, Dana Vennen. The programs operate under the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH).

Kinoshita and Goo teach their clients, many of them children, how to catch a horse and how to care, groom and feed the animal. Lessons including riding, balance work and responsibility — all with a goal of building confidence in the rider.

“I tell kids to relax, that they are in charge,” Kinoshita said, adding that it’s very empowering for children to ask a 1,000-pound animal to respond to their commands. “I tell them you have to speak ‘horse.’ It’s subtle nuances with horses.”

At Iolani Stables, Kinoshita ran a program called Give a Buddy Independence (GABI) that accommodated children with special needs. She and her daughter continue that work, serving disabled children and adults by appointment through Vision Farm’s weekly therapeutic equestrian program.

Current clients include Jack Castro, a 15-year-old student from Waikoloa Village, and two paraplegic women, Ellen Pavitt from Paauilo and Lynn Holman from Kona.

When Jack first came to the farm last fall, he wouldn’t feed the horses or approach them on his own. Today, he rides comfortably on his favorite quarter horse, Batman, and enjoys feeding him apples.

Jack’s father, Rick, said weekly horseback rides at the farm is the only thing he tells his parents he wants to do.

“You can see how much it has helped him,” Rick said.

Jack has improved posture while riding, and doesn’t exhibit the fear or apprehension he has with other activities, such as bike riding. That doesn’t surprise Goo.

“Riding a horse is more fun than riding a bike,” she said with a smile.

The paraplegic women just recently starting riding at Vision Farm and have progressed from getting on the horse, which they do with the help of a ramp built by their husbands, to taking shorts rides around the indoor arena.

Pavitt was among the passengers who survived a small plane crash at Hilo International Airport in 2015. She broke several bones and injured her spinal cord, which left her unable to move her legs.

Holman was diagnosed with a tumor in her spinal cord. Surgery last year left her unable to walk. While she is considered an “incomplete” paraplegic — meaning the extent of her condition is yet to be determined — she is confined to a wheelchair.

Both women were previously athletic and in good shape, and were looking for recreational opportunities when they contacted Bloomfield.

“Their eventual goal is to do a trail ride,” Bloomfield said.

Vision Farm, it turns out, was available and offered a safe place for them to ride. They are aided in their efforts by the team of Bloomfield, who is also a physical therapist knowledgeable in equestrian therapy, and Kinoshita.

“The horseback riding is helping me strengthen my abdominal and core muscles because I have to think about balancing, holding, tightening and using them, so that’s really a positive thing,” Pavitt said. “The horseback riding mimics how your body would move if you were walking and it’s really good for your body to experience that movement again.”

Holman, too, has experienced the sensation of walking.

“It’s hard to describe,” she said, “but when you’re riding a horse you get in the rhythm of it and it almost feels like you’re walking yourself. It makes me really happy, and brings back for me memories of when I was younger and did a lot of horseback riding.”

Both women say being able to ride reinforces a principle they have learned, which is that life doesn’t end because of a spinal cord injury.

“You can still do things you used to do, you just have to figure out how to do it differently,” Pavitt said.

And equal to the physical benefits they’re getting from riding are the emotional benefits. Although Holman rode a lot when she was younger, it had been years since she’d been on a horse.

“It was the last two times, when I really started to get into the riding, that I thought, ‘Wow. This is just such a wonderful thing. It’s bringing back all these good memories and is something I look forward to every week,’” she said.

Pavitt had not ridden much as a child and considered herself a real novice. As such, she is enjoying learning about horses and the relationships that develop.

“I’ve never known horses before in my life, so really getting to know them is very special,” she said. “They can read human emotions and understand what we’re feeling and respond to that. It’s powerful and exciting, and since I got hurt I fully understand that animals probably feel more than we think they do.”

After a recent class, Batman nuzzled Pavitt. Watching, Goo said to her, “Kisses.”

“That’s really neat,” Pavitt responded. “Batman just gave me a horse kiss.”