Credit: Photo courtesy of Jayne Thurber-Smith
Heroes abound in equine-therapy programs, where both horses and riders are special. I volunteer at a children’s equine-therapy program. Apart from raising my four beautiful children, this is the most rewarding work I’ve ever done. Every day you get a front-row seat to a miracle.
Children who enter our arena screaming in terror leave a short time later in speechless wonder, smiling. I’ve seen children who at first would only grunt their communication, eyes downcast, later dismount their therapy horse laughing, eyes dancing.
I’ve seen a wheelchair-using child with flailing limbs suddenly sit still and astonished as a horse (which should naturally fear wheelchairs and flailing limbs) lowers his regal head into her lap, with perfect trust and acceptance.
The Ride of Their Lives
Many of our horses have their own miraculous stories, having come back from abuse or neglect to become our reliable partners in this important work. Their effect on these children is nothing short of remarkable.
I remember particularly the week a special-education class visited us on a field trip. Some of the youth were in wheelchairs, wearing bibs to catch their drool. Some seemed oblivious at first to what was going on; some sobbed; some screamed. Fear was the dominant emotion as they were brought into the riding arena.
Then we helped them, one at a time, up the mounting ramp to begin the ride of their lives. This took great courage on the children’s part. Though the ramp brought their hips level to the horse’s saddle, these youngsters were uncoordinated, and even with a helper on either side it was a struggle to get them situated comfortably.
Each horse waited calmly, patiently. Once a child was seated and the horse walked slowly out, the rocking motion of that four-beat gait seemed to activate some sort of uncanny osmosis. Each rider somehow absorbed the calm demeanor of his or her mount. Our little parade of three horses enabled three children at a time to discover the joy and peace that being on horseback can bring.
A Little Bit of All Right
I led the middle horse. Ahead I saw an angry, frustrated child suddenly clap his hands with glee. Beside me I watched slumped shoulders straighten, and a cast-down, sad face look up and smile.
Behind me I heard anxious screaming cease. Frail bodies unused to exercise somehow bore up long enough to enjoy a 15-minute ride.
Then we gave three more riders a similar experience, then another three. Finally, whoever wanted to do so was welcome to pat the horses—which every horse owner knows is one of the most relaxing and endorphin-releasing activities there is.
For the children involved, for as long as it lasted, all was right with the world.
Not surprisingly, they didn’t want to leave. At the end I stood at the arena door with my favorite horse, Lucky. The special riders, having left their special needs behind for a while, clung to Lucky and he let them. They patted him clumsily, and the ones who could talk told him thanks. They left transformed, which was just how I felt as well.
Call It Courage
Though our ongoing program is for children, we also host a two-week camp session every May specifically for special-needs adults. After one morning’s trail ride (as with the youngsters, volunteers lead the horses while the campers ride), we were cooling down in the arena as usual. At this point, we always ask the riders if they’re stiff from riding and need to dismount.
On this particular day, the woman whose horse I was leading just sighed happily.
“No,” she said, “I never want to get off.”
When our program director asked me to help compose a monthly newsletter to keep parents updated on what’s happening with our equine therapy activities, I knew immediately what I wanted to call it.
Heroes Riding Heroes.
Our director, an unsentimental, rough-and-tumble cowgirl type, wasn’t sure about this title at first, but I persisted.
“You know how to dust yourself off after a fall and carry on, but some of these kids are overcoming huge fears just to get up on a horse,” I told her. “And you know the demons some of our rescued horses have overcome to allow this program to be possible. So, in my eyes, they’re all heroes.”
And that’s truly what I believe.
Jayne Thurber-Smith lives in Virginia Beach, Virginia, with her husband and three of her four children; her oldest son lives in Brooklyn, New York. She now divides her time between working alongside the horses at Back Bay Gambol Stables and writing for Faith & Friends magazine.