“You have red hair, too!” came a chipper voice from the wheelchair before me.
I am meeting my first student on my first day at a therapeutic riding center. Like me, Elli has vibrant red hair. She’s petite with glasses and clearly very friendly because we just met and she has no lack for words. As we prep for the ride I learn bits and pieces about her. She’s been riding for 20-something years. She’s 23 years old. She’s a writer – working on her first book. And she hates “going down the hill” during her ride.
I am Elli’s primary sidewalker on today’s ride. I couldn’t be more grateful for the day. I completed my application and orientation several weeks ago and got a text from the director asking me to cover two classes. Woo! So, I work during the day at my job and nights at the riding center. The director wants me to work with a variety of students to find the best “fit”.
I assist the instructor during the lesson by holding props or reins from the ground, as needed. I assist students, like Elli, by stabilizing her in the saddle via a belt with loops and handles as she reaches forward and back and serpentines her horse and gathers up sponges from one bucket to another bucket. I ensure that she is safe and able to pay full attention to the instructor. This is therapeutic riding. It’s like riding with a little help from your friends.
It feels good to be back in a barn and back with therapeutic riding. I’ve been feeling utterly depressed about my life situation. And since I am unsure of what big steps I need to make to get on the path I desire, I have decided to make little tiny steps towards improvement. Regular sessions with a therapist is a start. Volunteering my horse skills a couple times a week for therapeutic riding is my next step.
I need some perspective.
Horses provide some of the best kinds of therapy – both physical and mental. And you don’t even have to ride them to feel the benefits. If you’re not familiar horses and all of their quirky ways you might be fearful, but in reality horses can teach you a lot about yourself and what you’re going through.
I’m reading a book right now about how trauma affects the brain and body called The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van der Kolk, MD. There the doctor tells a story about one of his traumatized patients who stopped speaking entirely. She began to work with horses in a therapeutic program and gradually she began to find herself again. She gradually started trusting animals…and then humans… and she found her voice again. Incredible.
Horses are herd animals. They are prey animals. They believe in togetherness, and hierarchy, and family. They are incredibly perceptive; they are fluent in body language. I have friends who back their horses up simply by standing in front of them and wagging a finger. This slight motion applies pressure to a prey animal and they will retreat. Horses know what’s up. They know when you are capable of applying pressure to them and when you have absolutely no idea what you are doing. Work with a mare (especially one in heat) when you’re unsure of yourself and you’ll see just how quickly a horse will bully you and take advantage of you. I’m working with a Haflinger mare right now at the riding center who thinks she’s lead mare among the humans. Oof.
I’ve had a soft spot for horses for some time – especially the messed up kind. I love the therapy from horses. And I love being therapy to horses. After I left my corporate legal job in the midwest a couple years ago and transitioned to the south I took a summer job as a horse handler at a farm sanctuary called Snow Cloud Farm. For 8 hours a day 4 days a week I cared for 46 horses, 17 dogs, and 2 mini donkeys. These animals came from every kind of background. They were show horses, race horses, rodeo horses, police horses, and horses that were gifted to 6-year-olds. They were pit bulls leftover from dog fights and puppy mills. They were dogs left for dead. Or those on death row from the shelter. About half of them were blind, about a quarter were evil, and the last quarter were just as old as dirt.
If you’re looking for a good laugh and/or to be disgusted you should read two of my favorite stories from that farm experience – American Horror Story and The Green Plague. My time at that farm was quite the experience. You can also find more stories in the Snow Cloud Farm category on the blog. I wish I had taken the time to write more stories – especially stories about the horses and their backgrounds – but for some reason I never took the time.
“Twinkle” – the pony below – didn’t have special needs other than the typical attitude of a pony, but he came with his blind mommy when he was very young. So this has been the only home he’s ever known. (By the way, parents who think ponies are a good idea for their children have clearly never worked with ponies at. all.) He had an insanely long, thick, fast-growing mane that most people didn’t want to deal with, but… I couldn’t stand to look at him looking like a hobo in the field. Psst. Look at his round ears. Aren’t they the cutest thing?
You could say that all of these horses and dogs had “special needs” or came to the farm because they had a mother with special needs. I didn’t realize how much of a “blind horse” mindset I was in until I began to work with sighted horses again, and I started reminding them when to step down and where water was. Not only that but I keep catching myself doing this V thing with my arms when I lead them into a stall. It stems from the days when I had to constantly be on the lookout for both the front end and the hind end as they moved through small spaces. I know how to interact with a horse with special needs, but even after my years of experience with people with special needs… for some reason I am still feeling awkward in these riding lessons.
Truth moment. I have sister with Down Syndrome (DS). This means she has an extra copy of chromosome 21. She’s definitely the best thing that’s ever happened to me and you would think that having her in my life would naturally make me impervious to the awkward unknown-ness of interacting with people of various disabilities. But it doesn’t. She’s high functioning and highly verbal. I can interact with her and talk to her and reason with her much like I can with any other human being.
But I had a lesson with a little boy with DS the exact same age as her who is completely non-verbal. And by looking at him I couldn’t quite tell whether he was processing what was going on around him. Also, I can’t remember any of my sign language and without his digital communicator (his mom forgot it that day) I really had no real way of communicating with him. I honestly didn’t know how to be a human to another human during his lesson. I was at a loss.
At the therapeutic riding center we have riders ranging in age from school-aged kiddos all the way to adults. And their challenges range from congenital issues, to accidents, to substance abuse. We use horses to teach them responsibility for another living thing, how to build relationships, and about communication both with their horses and with their riding instructors and sidewalkers/assistants. I’m here because I have extensive horse experience and can serve in any capacity at the center, but I’m also here for another reason. I need perspective.
Little backstory: Back in the day when my stress/depression/unhappiness was at a peak I freaked out because the house where all of my earthly belongings were stored was in a location that was experiencing a deep freeze for weeks. I needed my friend to check the house and turn up the heat and run water to make sure that the pipes didn’t freeze.
I can’t remember exactly what happened but I think the heat actually went out and the heater-fixer-people were overwhelmed by the number of heaters they were having to fix. I was hundreds of miles away – having fled from an emotionally abusive relationship – and I left all of my stuff in a house I was borrowing from my parents after they moved to Europe. At the time I was at the end of my rope. In my head I was thinking I cannot handle one more thing going wrong in my life. But I am sure what came out over the phone was a lot less attractive. My friend said that actual humans not belongings were in danger. She said I needed some perspective.
I needed some perspective then. And I need some perspective now.
Desperation sucks the perspective right out of me. When my own problems are pressing on me from all sides it’s easy to forget how blessed I truly am. As I write I’m at my favorite coffee shop. Blessed to be here. I have a sweet little latte next to my keyboard. Blessed to be able to afford it. And by chance I’m sitting at a table next to one of my students at the riding center. Bryce (by the way, I never use their real names. Duh.) is 25 and has lived his entire life in a wheelchair. He’s never spoken a word. Blessed to be able to walk and speak whenever I feel like it. This is not to ignore or minimize my own challenges. Mine are valid. So are yours. This is why I pay a therapist the big bucks to sit and talk with me. But I am still so blessed regardless.
Recently the joint pain has really been bringing me down. And since doctors say there is no relief that they know of… I feel depressed by the pain and hopeless from the lack of a cure for the situation. I am back to doing PT. And I’m making progress with the stabilization exercises. Looking into knee braces. The perspective I want is that I am still so blessed regardless.
The students I ride with at the center are giving me perspective.
And when I bring the students to their parents and guardians they are teaching me perspective, too.
May you have perspective for your challenges, too.
Update: Per the usual, I wrote this a month or so ago but I set the thoughts aside to chill before sharing it with the world. I am thrilled to say that I am now settled into a weekly routine with my students at the therapeutic riding center and have already graduated from a “side walker” to “horse leader” which means that I not only get to work with the students but also with the horses. I’ve definitely got the best of both worlds over here.