Muriel Forrest and staffers at Wheatland Farm near Purcellville, Va., help a young rider onto a horse in the indoor riding arena, using a custom-built automated lift. CNS photo/handout via Arlington Catholic Herald
Muriel Forrest and staffers at Wheatland Farm near Purcellville, Va., help a young rider onto a horse in the indoor riding arena, using a custom-built automated lift. CNS photo/handout via Arlington Catholic Herald

PURCELLVILLE, Va. - Horses are magical creatures, gentle yet powerful, with large soulful eyes that silently watch and understand.

Muriel Forrest has found joy in being around horses since she was a child in Ireland, and knows joy is something children with disabilities – and their parents – need more of in their lives.

She and her husband, Mark, raised eight boys, three profoundly disabled. Four years ago, John, their second son, died of a rare nerve disorder – peroxisomal biogenesis disorder-Zellweger spectrum disorder. Francesco, their third, died in 1997 of a congenital heart defect at 5 days old.

Forrest, 48, said keeping and riding horses is common near Belfast where she grew up, not just a farm necessity or a hobby for rich people with big country estates. "In Ireland, it's not like that," she said.

When their older sons were children, she and Mark, 52, wanted to introduce them to the solace and joy of riding and being around horses, but most farms are not accessible.

"There are very few places you can go with children in wheelchairs," she said. "That's when you realize how inaccessible our world really is."

They recognized that other families with special needs children also were desperate for support and recreation opportunities for the whole family, including able-bodied siblings, who often feel ignored because parents are so consumed with the needs of a disabled child.

"Children with special needs are very challenging – and also a unique blessing," Forrest said. "They change your life, and they have a deep impact on a family."

She and Mark, a professional singer, began to ask, "What do we need to create a facility for recreation that is totally accessible?" she said. "There is not a medical answer for everything, but families need support, and we can create a recreational opportunity for the whole family."

In 1999, they created the not-for-profit Faith and Family Foundation to support families like theirs. In 2011, they bought Wheatland Farm, a 50-acre farm near Purcellville, with buildings dating to 1741. They did extensive renovations, and in 2012 they moved in.

"There wasn't anything for horses or children with disabilities, so we had to start from scratch," Forrest told the Arlington Catholic Herald, newspaper of the Diocese of Arlington.

Today, Wheatland Farm has grown into a unique ministry – and a sign of hope for special needs families. It offers both therapeutic and traditional riding programs and teaches "dressage," French for training. It's an Olympic sport involving precise movements by a trained horse in response to subtle signals from the rider.

Forrest is executive director of the farm and an instructor. The couple's son Anthony, 21, also is an instructor and trainer. Mark works to raise awareness at his concerts and appearances as an Irish tenor, and manages large-scale projects when he is not on the road.

Five years ago, Wheatland Farm was named a U.S. Equestrian Foundation Center of Excellence for International Para Dressage, one of only a handful of such centers nationwide. "Para Dressage" refers to the sport's status as "parallel" to dressage for able-bodied riders. Some of their students are rated to compete internationally.

Stacey Tuman of Hillsboro, Virginia, said her daughter, Adalie, 16, has a progressive nerve-wasting disease and struggles with walking, but rides a horse named George at Wheatland Farm and someday hopes to be on the U.S. Para Dressage Team at the Olympics.

"She will never be able to participate in team athletics, but she can climb on top of George and compete on the national level. That's a gift." On a horse, she can be "beautiful, graceful, elegant -- all the things she feels like she's not," Tuman said.

For Forrest, running the farm doesn't leave much downtime, but training horses and working with students "is my greatest joy." Her own children with special needs – Joey, 19, and Peter, 12 – absorb any time not spent at work, "but coffee and the rosary keep me going."

Her face lit up as she strode into the stable in equestrian gear before a training session. She greeted one of the horses, who poked his head out of his stall and nosed her hand looking for sugar cubes. "I've no treats, I've no sugar," she said, laughing and caressing his muzzle.

The farm's 17 horses are specially chosen and trained for therapeutic riding, similar to seeing-eye dogs for the blind. Smaller ponies also are used in therapy.

Aside from the emotional benefits of being around an animal, "riding builds confidence, and it is so important for them to be able to have that sense," Forrest said.

Moving with the natural gait of a horse – known as hippotherapy – uses core muscles and can mimic movements of walking, for people who cannot walk. Only riding and swimming can do this, she said. "If you don't move your body, it breaks down over time," she added.

In 2017, a shallow saltwater pool with a custom pool lift was built to provide adaptive and traditional aquatics, teach water safety, and provide additional recreation.

The farm's latest project is a new 192-foot-long accessible horse barn that complies with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Arlington Bishop Michael F. Burbidge was scheduled to bless it Aug. 22.

The $500,000 barn has extra-wide aisles with rubber pavers, accessible stalls and tack rooms that allow students in wheelchairs to safely groom horses and access riding equipment. The barn also includes a heated student lounge with lockers and two wheelchair-accessible restrooms, as well as offices for staff and an apartment for a manager to live onsite.

A covered walkway leads from the barn to a large indoor riding arena, with a special footing made of a mixture of sand and microfiber, which minimizes dust, provides a more stable riding surface and cushions falls.

A custom-built automated lift helps riders with physical challenges mount and dismount horses safely.

The entire farm is accessible, with paved roads and pathways everywhere. A small lake has an accessible dock, and a new fishing club for students and their families will launch in September

"It can be very isolating when you have a child with special needs," Forrest said. "The goal here is to have an inclusive equestrian center where kids with special needs and able-bodied peers can participate together, each at his or her own level of ability."

The farm costs about $750,000 a year to run and the Forrests take no salary from the foundation, relying on donations and fundraising events, speaking engagements and advocacy.

"Our faith is our guidepost, without which none of what we do makes any sense," Forrest said. "Our job is to be the hands and feet of Christ to children and adults with disabilities and their families."

Editor's Note: A video about Wheatland Farm can be found at wheatlandfarm.org.

Miller is staff writer at the Arlington Catholic Herald, newspaper of the Diocese of Arlington.