HealthVoices of Hope


How these horses are changing the lives of those with special needs

Posted at 4:33 PM, Oct 12, 2022
and last updated 2022-10-13 07:20:55-04

POWHATAN COUNTY, Va. -- At a quaint farm nestled in the rolling hills of Powhatan County, Trevor Rhinehart gently grooms his horse, Puff, while whispering words of encouragement.

“You’re a good girl,” Trevor says. “You did awesome.”

There’s no doubt that Trevor and Puff share a deep bond, one that has remained since Trevor started riding Puff two years ago. Trevor has autism and says he finds comfort in being with Puff in and out of the riding ring.

“We have a mutual respect for each other and she’s a good friend,” Trevor says. “It makes me feel happy. It makes me feel like this is what I wanted to do my whole entire life.”

How these horses are changing the lives of those with special needs

Every Saturday, Trevor rides and cares for Puff at the Mesa Vista Therapeutic and Equestrian Center on Judes Ferry Road in Powhatan. Helen Messenger helped establish the center in 2006 for children and adults with special needs.

“My passion as a retired nurse has always been with the special needs population so I got to combine my two loves,” Messenger says.

Other than the horses, Messenger says people love interacting with the farm’s two potbellied pigs, Tinkerbell and Windy, along with Patty the donkey. Dogs can also be seen playing and socializing with other animals and guests.

Messenger says the center works with therapists and physicians to ensure that equine therapy is a good fit for each individual. Along with therapy programs, the center also offers traditional riding lessons to help support therapy initiatives. Messenger says the animals have a reassuring presence for everyone.

“I just find it calming, even if I seldom ride,” Messenger says. “Especially at night if no one is around, I’ll just go out to the barn to hang out with them or in the early day when nobody is here. For me, it’s a calming effect, it’s a grounding effect.”

Studies show that equine therapy can help patients of all ages achieve physical, occupational and developmental goals, even with speech. Horses also promote emotional well-being in treating people with anxiety and depression, ADHD and dissociative disorders, among other mental health diagnoses.

Trevor’s mom, Elizabeth Rhinehart, says she sees the benefits of equine therapy every time Trevor visits the center.

“There’s something about him and Puff,” Rhinehart says. "She relates to him, and she feels if he’s having a rougher day, she can tell.”

Messenger says some former riders have gone on to jobs in therapy, occupational health or teaching. She says many come back to visit the center and share their experiences.

“It’s an emotional rush a lot of times,” Messenger says. “Is it exhausting sometimes and tiring? Absolutely. But when you know what the end result is, I smile a lot when I talk about it.”

Trevor says he smiles too when thinking about Puff and the barn.

“I recommend it to everyone,” Trevor says. “Whenever I’m with a horse it makes me feel like I’m really calm and it helps me. You can feel that way as well.”