Learning to Dance in the Rain

Horses opened up a new world for her. Now she hopes to give back to her community.

The author poses for a quick snapshot on Maxi, her Tennessee Walking Horse mare.

I’ve been living my life sitting down since I was 4 years old. I was in an automobile accident that left me paralyzed from the chest down. That was in 1979, when federally mandated car safety seats were far off the horizon. My injury forced me to live life differently. I learned early that I had to seek out my abilities and live boldly upon them.

For years I dreamed of riding a horse. Many physical challenges stood in the way, however. My support team was my family; ultimately we gathered at a local stable. My husband modified a Western saddle for me, using parts from a retired wheelchair.

When I first sat astride a sweet Tennessee Walking Horse mare and took the reins, I discovered a new sense of freedom. The mare’s gentle, repetitive walking stride moved my body in a way that’s similar to a human’s gait. Physically, it was as close to walking as I had come as an adult. Horseback riding gave me a new visual perspective, too. For the first time I was experiencing the world at a higher level. I was eye to eye with my husband!

After just one ride, I was hooked. After a couple of rides, I began to achieve greater flexibility and balance. Rather than simply leading me on a horse across an arena, my family and friends created an opportunity for me to experience an authentic trail ride. I also learned the basics of caring for a horse, such as saddling and bridling, mounting and dismounting, doing things the right way. And I had to care for my tack like any other rider, too.

In other words, I built my relationship with horses organically, by doing real ranch work. In fact, my experience working with horses has become so engaging that my wish now is to help others like me benefit from equine-assisted therapy.

Studies have shown that riding a horse has special benefits for anyone challenged with a physical, emotional, or behavioral disability. Curiously, it all goes back to those wonderful equine gaits. They enable riders to experience movement in three dimensions—up and down, forward and backward, side to side. This complicated motion stimulates a rider’s nerves, muscles, and brain activity simultaneously, with marvelous results.

Then, too, equestrian activities in and out of a therapeutic setting improve physical functionality (balance, strength, coordination), emotional functionality (focus, self-awareness, empathy), and social well-being (confidence, mobility, independence).

A veritable bonanza of benefits! And that’s why I’m set on developing my own 501(3)c—a therapeutic riding facility right here in my community in eastern Georgia.

One of my favorite quotes is from Vivian Green: “Life’s not about waiting for the storms to pass….it’s about learning to dance in the rain.” Putting people with disabilities into saddles doesn’t just allow them a new sense of freedom—it prompts them to grab life by the reins and prosper.

Leslie Ostrander lives in Fortson, Georgia, with her husband, two teenage sons, and two rescued horses. She’s also found new passion and purpose with her plans to develop an adaptive riding center in her locale; for information or to support her efforts, send an email with the subject line “Therapeutic Riding” to [email protected]