As a young woman, Carol Hingular biked, swam, cross-country skied, hiked, rode horses, and tore across every bit of the Long Island beaches she called home.
Years later, she is still an active sportswoman. At the 2015 TRAV show, she glides around the ring on a slim paint horse named Spirit, unruffled by the horse show nerves around her. Perched high in the saddle, Hingular moves gently with the rhythm of Spirit’s bobbing walk, leaning forward to stroke his unruly mane, a graceful smile on her face and a blue ribbon pinned to her horse’s bridle.
Riding is a joy and a passion for Hingular. But there was a time when she thought she would have to give it up – not just riding, but her entire active lifestyle. In 1982, she was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, which viciously attacked energy, flexibility, and strength, especially in her legs. “I thought I’d never ride again,” she said. “It was a lot of adjusting. But that’s okay. You don’t look at the things you can’t do, but the things you can. I live my life as fully as I can.”
This has always been Hingular’s outlook and way of life. She grew up on Long Island, a world away from the quiet town in the Blue Ridge Mountains where she lives now. “I love, love the ocean. I gave it up to come to the mountains,” she explained. She studied English literature and education at Queen’s College in New York City, where she started riding horses regularly before breaking a vertebra in a fall. After graduation, she became an English teacher. It was not until her daughter was a teenager that she started taking riding lessons again. Riding horses became something they could enjoy together.
Then came the diagnosis. Her flexibility was so diminished she could not get her leg over a horse and thought that riding was completely out of the picture. In 1989, she was divorced, her daughter was starting college, and it was time for a change of pace and a change of scenery. She moved from New York to Botetourt, trading oceans for mountains, as she puts it.
A little more than ten years after moving to southern Virginia, she heard about therapeutic riding at an MS support group meeting. The concept of riding as therapy was intriguing and exciting, and she began to research centers in the area. Eventually, she found a perfect fit at Hoofbeats, which, at the time, was located at Trish Roger’s historic farm in Natural Bridge. She was returning to an old passion with a different set of challenges she was unsure could be overcome, but she was determined to give it a try.
“It was frustrating at first,” she said. “I had a terrible time getting on and off the horse – but once I was on it was very wonderful.”
After riding at Hoofbeats for more than twelve years, Hingular said she has benefitted tremendously from the physical therapy aspect. “Riding has helped me in many ways,” she explained. Scoliosis has curved her spine to the right, and so when she is riding, Carol Branscome, her instructor, walks behind the horse to tell Hingular which way she is leaning, helping her to sit straighter than ever before.
“The movement of a horse is synchronized with the movement of a human body,” Hingular explained. This natural simulation has improved balance and strength in her core and legs.
“It is also beneficial spiritually and emotionally,” she said. “There was so much I could no longer do, just to be able to still ride horses, it makes my day so wonderful. The day I ride, I’m floating on air the whole day.”
When she makes the 50-minute drive from Botetourt to the Hoofbeats center in Lexington, she sets aside the whole day. This is fairly typical of Hoofbeats riders. Only a portion of riders’ time at the center is spent in the saddle. “What I love about Hoofbeats, is that you groom, tack up, feed treats, and give hugs. You develop a relationship with the horse,” Hingular said.
“I’ve decided something. Have you heard of the “feel-good” hormone, oxytocin? It is released when people gaze into their lovers’ eyes. It is the same thing with dogs and with horses. When I gave into Harry’s eyes, I get lost. I can see into his soul,” she said.
It is not only relationships with the horses, but also the people and the culture of community and encouragement that makes Hingular stay for hours after her lesson, chatting with the other riders and volunteers.
“When I saw younger children at Hoofbeats, severely disabled – that moved me. Riding, what an important thing,” she said. “Every year, I don’t know if I can come back, and every year I have to.”