Dressed in her riding togs, Abby Mahoney-Cloutier, 10, took one brief look around the familiar barn, with the horses peering out of their stalls, and burst into sobs. Overwhelmed by fear, the autistic child flailed at the walls.
Joan Marie Twining, Abby's riding instructor for the past year, put her arm around the wiry young girl and spoke in soft, assuring tones. With Abby now subdued, Twining walked her to a tethered horse named Izzy and handed the child a brush.
Talking to Izzy in the same gentle tones she had just heard, Abby groomed the horse she considers her own. "I know you are liking that," she whispered in Izzy's ear.
Watching from the side, Abby's mother says she has often seen her daughter's mood transformed at Twining's Rose of Sharon Equestrian School from inconsolable to confident. If the meltdown had occurred at school, Patricia Mahoney says, the day would be lost.
Twining, a special education teacher who opened the nonprofit riding school in Glen Arm a decade ago, insists she has "no magic words," only an innate sense of what each child needs. Often, she says, a well-trained horse can fill that need.
Twining, who teaches children diagnosed with autism, anxiety disorder and other disabilities to command hefty horses in the fully accessible and pristinely maintained barn, is a pioneer in the field of equine therapy.
"Animals can be a bridge," said Erika Friedmann, president of the International Society of Anthrozoology, a science that studies interaction between humans and animals.
"There are children who won't speak to a person but who will talk to a horse," said Friedmann, a biologist at the University of Maryland School of Nursing. "These successes can transfer over to help develop personal relationships."
Twining, a petite woman with flowing white hair, says she sees gains firsthand, and nearly every day.
"I meet my students wherever they are and they calm for me," Twining said. "Then, we talk and I explain in an easygoing way what I had hoped we would accomplish that day. We can make choices about what they can handle in light of what is going on with them and move forward."
Abby comes to Twining's school weekly to help cope with Asperger's syndrome and anxiety disorder, showing up even in inclement weather to groom and feed the horses.
"Joan is calm, loving and steady," Mahoney said. "She just rolls with the punches. I know Abby is completely safe and Joan is helping her to be successful."
After grooming Izzy, Abby and Twining led the 14-year-old reddish pony across to the riding ring. Abby climbed into the saddle.
"Izzy loves me," Abby said.
For Twining, 52, a lifelong affinity for horses began with the little girl who napped on her rocking horse and prompted the teen to learn rudimentary equine care from farms near her childhood home in Massachusetts.
She studied at the Cheff Therapeutic Riding Center in Michigan, earned a master's degree in special education from the Johns Hopkins University and taught in Baltimore County for 12 years.
From a hill overlooking the Gunpowder River valley in the northern county, she and her husband, building contractor Randy Twining, erected the wood-framed barn based on the design she developed for her master's thesis at Hopkins. Designed to meet all the legal aspects and accessibility requirements for special education, it includes stalls and other equine amenities, as well as a classroom, a kitchen, and an equicizer or practice horse.
Twining says that experience has convinced her that horses can help heal their human companions.
"Nothing is as dramatic as the breakthrough that comes when these children are around horses," she said. "There is something about the aura and energy of a horse that is calming."
Serenity reigns at the Rose of Sharon Equestrian School, from the CD playing "Relaxation for Horses" to the gentle banter between teacher and student.
Families say Twining is a calming influence even over her five horses, most of them past their prime and all of them donated.
Twining instructs autistic children in small groups from Kennedy Krieger Institute, St. Elizabeth's School and the Forbush School. During a session with five severely autistic adolescents from Kennedy Krieger Institute, Twining gave each boy a turn at grooming. First she asked each to show the horse the brush.
"Her eyes are like mine, big and brown," one child noticed.
'Out of her shell'
Stuart Forcheimer said he cannot explain the mystery of equine therapy, but he knows firsthand that horses have profoundly affected his 9-year-old daughter, who has pervasive development disorder.
"You have this big animal that is so compassionate, gentle and intelligent," he said. "Horses really brought Julia out of her shell."
Julia's feet were too small for the stirrups when she first came five years ago, he said, but now she holds the reins. Grandfather Sheldon Forcheimer said Julia's initial timidity around the horses is long gone.