Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Jumping Back In - Introduction - March 22, 2008

It was with heavy heart that I decided to dial the number. A recently failed job, a perpetually failing relationship, and the burden of living Manhattan’s rat race had all contributed to a permeating sense of disillusionment. Perhaps, I thought, I could find therapy for what ailed by refocusing my energy outside of my own problems. Maybe it was time to ease my tangled emotions by helping others learn what I had come to accept as gospel truth: that a “horse life” can be an outstanding antidote to real life.

And so I phoned the program. I explained to the director, whose jovial voice greeted me on the line’s other end, that I was both a horseperson and a child person. More specifically I was a horse person who had trained and owned horses all my life, and a child person with two years experience assisting students with special needs. I knew well the distinct and positive impression that a warm muzzle could have on a small heart because horses had long been my go-to venue for relief from life’s stresses, and I could only imagine the effect they might have on handicapped children who’d had more than their fair share. The program’s director explained the nuts and bolts of therapeutic riding and then invited me out for his weekend volunteer training. I made a mental note to pack boots and helmet in my car, and set my sights on Saturday.

The weekend dawned hopefully bright, and I arrived at the riding facility early. With only a small degree of trepidation I noticed that this barn was markedly different from the Kentucky outfits of my youth. Instead of the proliferation of stock horses, Western saddles and cowboy hats that I had expected, I was surrounded by fancy hunters, jumping standards and tall black boots. As I made my way to the riding center office I chuckled at how my splashy blue-eyed paint horse gelding would have stood out against the myriad of bays circulating inside this stable’s training ring.

My intuition about the therapeutic riding program, however, proved correct. The program’s director addressed the assembled volunteers and outlined for us the volunteer process and requirements. He then very tenderly described the magical moments that he had witnessed during his years as a certified trainer of handicapped riding. Children in pain refusing to get off their horses. Rampant behavior problems reversed by the simple threat of having to leave the barn. Children confined to chairs and beds made “whole” again through a Centaur-like merging with a four-pack of equine legs. I braced against the tears that welled up after every story and looked off at the leggy Thoroughbreds circling in an adjacent arena. Just breathe, I told myself, don’t let this stuff carry you away. You are strong enough to help these kids.

The program director finished his introduction, and invited our group to head to the barn. There were ten of us, all hoping to make some positive impression on the lives of others, but none who knew how to connect child with horse. We were trained for three hours in volunteer methodology, instructed in how to support and assist the kids we would work with, briefed on barn rules and schooled in rudimentary horse care. At the close of our session, many volunteers stayed simply to “hang out” and inhale the comforting peacefulness of barn life.

I hung out too, but with ulterior motives. A long time volunteer of the program had informed me that volunteers with riding experience could enlist themselves as exercise riders for the program’s two-horse “string.” Determined to get my hands on the reins and my seat in the saddle, I waited until the other volunteers had trickled out and proposed my aptitude for the job to the program’s director. He smiled and suggested I tack up the program’s “old man,” a 27 year old bomb-proof school horse who would give me a chance to strut my stuff. Though I hadn’t ridden consistently for four years, and hadn’t ridden English consistently even before that, I leapt at the chance and ran to grab my helmet.

I tacked the “old man” up and made my way to the arena. He was a good horse, solid, respectful, and willing enough, given his close proximity to retirement. I put him through his paces with a confident face, hoping that my posture flaws and time out of the saddle would not label me too egregiously as an incompetent. The program’s director offered a few small pointers as I rode but things went generally well, and I worked the “old man” the better part of an hour.

The program director requested we all be back for phase two of our training the following week. He also agreed that I could work his “old man” again and continue to prove my worth as an exercise rider. I decided to return prepared to make a difference. I was ready to change lives, human and equine alike - even if I did have to do it in breeches.