It sounds like the perfect premise for a feel-good movie. Two little girls, both 5 years old, both with the same first name and both working to overcome the same physical disability, meet, become riding partners and find friendship and happiness at their equestrian center.

But it’s not a screenplay. Rather, it’s the kind of relationship that develops at Riding to the Top, Windham’s therapeutic equestrian center.

Zoe Faveron of Brunswick and Zoey Houston of Gorham have limited strength and coordination in the left sides of their bodies. They take a semi-private hypotherapy session together every Thursday afternoon at the riding center to strengthen their left hands and arms.

Hypotherapy is a type of equestrian therapy that works specifically with individuals with neuromotor disorders.

Faveron was born with hydrocephalus, a condition that causes fluid to build up in the brain, creating swelling and sometimes leading to brain damage. Houston suffered a stroke at age 2 that led to the disability. Both girls started at the center about six months ago, after undergoing intensive physical therapy.

Riding to the Top has offered therapy to children and adults with disabilities for more than two decades. Since its  founding in 1993, the organization has grown substantially – from operating at commercial farms to owning a 50-acre farm, and, in 2005, constructing an indoor arena.

The riding center is a nonprofit organization that receives no federal, state or municipal funding and provides numerous scholarships to its hundreds of riders, according to Sarah Bronson, executive director and founding board member. The center relies heavily on donations to balance its half-a-million-dollar operating budget.

Recently, it was the beneficiary of a $2,000 grant from the Windham branch of Modern Woodmen of America, a member-owned financial services institution. The donation followed the riding center’s annual fundraising event, Dances with Horses, where the center raised more than $7,500.

Tim Graham, managing partner at Modern Woodman, said he attended the riding center’s fall fundraiser, Triple B: Boots, Band & BBQ, and was “very impressed.”

The more he got to know about the staff and the riding center, the more he and Modern Woodman “wanted to stay with and support” Riding to the Top, he said.

It’s stories like Zoe’s and Zoey’s that contribute to the equestrian center’s success.

On a Thursday in mid-July, the two 5-year-olds were working on their exercises at the center’s indoor arena. They both sat atop 1,000-pound animals and were each assisted by three volunteers: one walking in front of the horse, and one on either side. Bronson, who is also a physical therapist, stood in front to lead the session.

The girls practiced grasping the reins with their left hands, and reaching with their left arm while playing games with the volunteers. Later in the session, the girls left the arena and trotted, escorted by volunteers, along a wooded outdoor path.

The goals in hypotherapy are similar to those of physical therapy – patients build and stretch muscles while learning fine motor skills, sequencing, balance and coordination, according to Bronson.

But Zoey Houston’s grandmother, Bonnie McClure, said her granddaughter receives benefits far beyond the physical therapy.

Not only is Houston using her left hand more at home, McClure said while sitting in the arena to watch the girls’ session, but the child also benefits from spending time with adults and feeling the sense of community and acceptance.

Another benefit all clients reap is forging an emotional bond with a horse, Bronson said.

Zoe Faveron’s mother, Carol Wolfenzon, can attest to that.

Her daughter has a “beautiful connection” with her horse, Babe, and “talks constantly about him when she’s home,” she said.

In fact, some therapy sessions don’t even involve mounting a horse. Senior citizens, veterans and others who may not be able to ride still benefit from grooming, feeding and talking to the horses, Bronson said.

Later, sitting in the “viewing area,” a room with a large window looking out on the indoor arena, Bronson said that the majority of the center’s clients are not hypotherapy patients; rather, they come to the riding center to cope with a range of mental health diagnoses. The most common diagnosis for the center’s clients is autism, but they also have many young people with Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, anxiety and depression.

But, Bronson said, she tries not to get too hung up on the client’s disability.

“We try to focus on what they can do on a horse and not limit them by diagnosis,” she said.

The riding center focuses on creating a space where kids and adults with disabilities feel safe and free from the judgment they often face in public spaces.

Staff, volunteers and clients are “accepting and loving to everyone who comes in here,” she said. “That’s a piece we take for granted sometimes, but that’s a really special piece of who we are.”

In this supportive, nurturing environment, many riders thrive, she said.

“Some start out with three support volunteers and eventually can ride on their own,” she said. “It takes patience and perseverance and belief to learn the skill. They don’t have the traditional learning trajectory most kids have, but if they like riding and are motivated by it, they can be successful here.”

Zoey Houston, 5, rides on the trail at Windham’s Riding to the Top with the help of Alexis Casagrande, left, and Amelia Mitchell.

Zoe Faveron rides her horse, Babe, at Riding to the Top. Faveron’s mother said she has “a beautiful connection” with her horse.

Faveron, center, is assisted by two volunteers during her weekly therapy session at Riding to the Top. Executive Director Sarah Bronson, right, said the riding center provides a safe community and learning environment to children and adults with disabilities.

Zoe Faveron rides her horse, Babe, at Riding to the Top. Faveron’s mother said she has “a beautiful connection” with her horse.

A closer look

Riding to the Top’s next major fundraiser, “Triple B: Boots, Band & BBQ” will be held Saturday, October 15. The event will be held in the center’s indoor arena at 14 Lilac Dr. and will feature a barbecue dinner, live music and a “mission based auction” to support Rider Scholarship and Horse Funds.

For more information, visit

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