HOPKINTON, N.H. (AP) — Kicking dry dirt into the air along the way, a mellow 17-year-old Haflinger horse named Gideon walked around the riding arena at Back in the Saddle Equine Therapy Center in Hopkinton.

Instructor Kathy Mauzerall prompted her student in the saddle to ask Gideon to halt.

Eight-year-old Carmel Horangic of Concord, who is autistic, held out her left palm and brought a raised, open right hand down to meet it, completing the American sign language gesture for stop. A huge accomplishment, according to Carmel's mother, Nicole Varasteh.

"It's very hard to teach her, very hard," she said, describing the challenges Carmel has had in her education and the decision the family made to home-school her. Even a year ago, a concept like "stop" was iffy. But two months after she'd started her therapeutic horseback riding sessions, called hippotherapy, Carmel bolted through a parking lot and when Varasteh yelled "stop," Carmel responded.

"I didn't realize that she was connecting what the horse was doing with what they were saying. ... I was really surprised that she learned that word. And I think because they practiced it so many times and the horse would stop as soon as they would say it," Varasteh said.

"She really understood that word."

It was far more than what Varasteh expected, who was simply looking for a program to improve her daughter's core strength and fine motor skills.

Carmel is just one of the many people to benefit from equine therapy, according to BITS founder and director Pauline Meridien.

"We offer therapeutic riding for people with disabilities aged 2 to 92, because I don't think kids should have all the fun - and as I get older that 92 might get older, too," she said.

The emphasis on those with special needs or disabilities has been with the equine therapy center since its inception, when Meridien's daughter, an occupational therapist, convinced her mother to start a program with the horses she grew up riding.

"We started out without even a ring or a barn or anything. We just had this little lean-to here with a couple of my backyard horses," Meridien said. Fifteen years later, the horse count is up to nine, all donated, and the nonprofit offers a variety of programs catering to riders like Carmel as well as veterans and seniors.

Depending on the individual and the program, riders could be paired up with horses Gideon, Stormy, Star, Brandy or Mr. Pretzel the pony. Mystique, a miniature horse, has represented BITS at Fisher Cats games, libraries, retirement homes and even ice cream stands.

All of Meridien's horses have calm demeanors and are not easily spooked.

"Generally speaking, therapy horses have been there and done that, and then this is their second career," she said.

The horses are eager to help.

"They all want to do the work," Meridien said. "On the surface that sounds silly like they're making a decision, but you don't make any of these horses do anything that they don't agree to do."

Volunteers, donations and grants play a huge role at BITS, and a Junior Service League grant awarded in June is providing Carmel a chance to continue her therapy with Gideon this summer.

While Back in the Saddle was founded with a therapeutic mission, these days anyone is welcome to ride.

"We stopped discriminating against the able-bodied about four years ago," Meridien deadpanned.

___

Online: https://bit.ly/2A3u7C5

___

Information from: Concord Monitor, http://www.concordmonitor.com