Nine-year-old William Lionetta takes horse-riding lessons at Ironstone Farm.

For William, who has autism, the rides serve as therapy.

"Being on the horse taught him how to speak," said his mother, Bernadette Lionetta. "I'm one of the believers. I don't know how it works, but it's clearly phenomenal."

Now that Ironstone Farm on Lowell Street has built a 16,000-square-foot indoor riding facility, William and others will be able to take weekly, therapeutic horse rides all year long..

At the farm, physical, occupational and speech therapy are offered for riders on halflinger horses, which are smaller and gentler than typical horses.

"Their temperament is very conducive to this," said farm Executive Director Deedee O'Brien of the horses. "They don't startle easily."

Halflingers, which are originally from the Swiss Alps, have a short stature, can carry heavy weight-loads, and move rhythmically | which is ideal for therapeutic purposes, according to O'Brien.

"The movement of the horse simulates the natural walking movement," said O'Brien. "When a person straddles that riding horse, they'll receive that exercise as if they were walking."

An event was held at the indoor track on Sunday to honor the many people and businesses who helped raise money for the riding ring project's construction.

Lowell Spinners owner Drew Weber was scheduled to be the guest speaker, after his minor-league baseball team chose Ironstone Farm as its charity of the year during the 2005 season. A 15-rider demonstration was also planned, said O'Brien.

"Therapeutic riding has been around for a long time," said O'Brien. "It's had a resurgence probably in the last 40 years in this country."

Since 2004, O'Brien and the staff at Ironstone had been making a concerted effort to build an indoor riding ring.

Ground was finally broken on the project in June 2006.

In the past, winter weather would prevent riders like William from engaging in continuous hippotherapy | therapy using a horse. The indoor track will change that.

Often, half of the farm's appointments during the winter season would be canceled due to snow or the cold.

"That's a hit revenue-wise, but that's also a hit therapy-wise for our people," said O'Brien.

On the first day the arena was opened to riders, morning downpours made all the hard work with fundraising and construction well worth it, O'Brien said.

"We have always run programs regardless of the (rainy) weather," she said. "We would say, 'This isn't rain | it's a heavy mist.' "

The facility, which cost $750,000 to build, isn't totally finished. Insulation, an inside wall, and heating and sound systems will be added to the wheelchair-accessible structure, said O'Brien.

"It's great," said William, who has participated in the Equestrian Special Olympics at the farm. "Now I can ride inside."

Up to three lessons at a time can be conducted in the ring, according to O'Brien, who said the farm provides services to up to 450 riders each week

"We've got babies that ride together with the therapist," she said. "People with and without disabilities participate together."

For William, who goes to the farm for weekly speech therapy, the impact of riding has been tremendous.

Before he began riding at 2, he had developed no vocabulary, said his mother.

According to O'Brien, hippotherapy for speech aligns the throat, neck and spinal column.

"The therapy will include the speech by the person addressing the animal, by giving commands to the horse," said O'Brien. "It's actually pretty profound."

Bernadette Lionetta said she was overtaken with emotion when she drove up to the farm and saw the new riding facility for the first time.

"I absolutely had tears in my eyes when I drove up and saw that new arena," she said. "(William) just absolutely loves it. ... He can do something that other kids can do."

This Week's Circulars