Exploring the human and greater-than-human world

I started volunteering at a Therapeutic Riding Center last week. It was the first week of their short 6 week winter session. My regularly scheduled time is at 11am on Fridays, but I came in on last Monday and Wednesday as a sub. I was glad to help out so much so quickly. The experience would have been rewarding regardless, but to have three quick fire volunteer sessions was especially fulfilling. Each session was unique and intense, and so illuminating and giving. I came into contact with human life conditions that I rarely get exposed to on a daily basis – emotional, cognitive, physical ailments so unlike my own set of circumstances. But we both are healed by the therapeutic interaction of horses, however unique this healing is to our personal set of conditions.

The first session I was a horse leader for Katie, who was ridden by E. E was a slight six year old girl who had been riding for two years. She enjoyed stopping Katie at the letters (“woah”) around the indoor arena (“E is for my name”), counting to “3,” and then asking Katie to “walk on.” She did not have gloves and got very cold and uncomfortable holding the reins. I zipped up her cute pink hoodie while we were untacking Katie, wishing her warmer but so happy to have “ridden” with her and Katie. Katie was happy to return to the hay I had extracted her from earlier. The instructor was great, and it was good to connect with her.

The second session was with L and I was a sidewalker to Lou, a white Dutch Warmblood / Thoroughbred mare whose stride was significant. On top of that, she was still battling an eye infection she had had when I first worked with her in a training session a month earlier. She had to wear an eye mask, and the instructor was very cautious about handling anything around Lou’s eye. Lou ended up wearing a black fine mesh mask, rope halter and regular halter with side-snap rainbow reins for the session. Her handler struggled with keeping Lou’s gait down in front of me, and I struggled not to trip on his heels as I, 5’4”, braced L with thigh holds on a 16+ hand horse. Lou could be a tank, and there was pro and con to a stride such as hers. It is very long and rhythmic and can help people who are paralyzed, stiff, and in pain to receive waves of movement and consistency that help, ultimately, to keep their bodies more healthy, alive – and enlivened by the companionship of a horse. The con can be that the horse’s stride is too intense for the rider and the team supporting him / her for therapeutic benefit.

After rolling his wheelchair up the mounting ramp, L boarded Lou – lifted by his caregiver and other volunteers and staff from his everyday wheelchair confinement and onto Lou – big, gracious Lou, who makes you feel instantly royal even if she can sometimes move too fast. During the session, L kept falling over to my side. I had to prop him up in an encouraging way while the sidewalker on the other side would occasionally hoist him back over to the other side. If L would make noises indicating possible distress, we would stop (“WOAH”) and assess, but he seemed just fine through the whole ride. Whenever I could get him to look at me or respond to (or defy) my attempts to support his riding experience was encouragement. L was cognitively and physically disabled, as well as infected with Hepatitis B and another condition that drove him to gnaw on a towel fashioned like a bib across his chest. L’s caregiver, however, did seemed concerned after the session at how much (too much?) Lou moved L. The instructor remained an advocate of Lou’s therapeutic gait, and as the winter session progresses I hope horse and rider figure each other out. Too bad I won’t see it as this was also a sub session.

My regularly scheduled session once more saw Lou and me together, but this time I was her horse leader. I thought I had had Pete, but the day of the session I was signed up with Lou. Her eye was even worse, but hopefully on the way to healing for good now. No mask this time, but her eye was a swollen, infected sore. I don’t know how she saw for the swelling and pus of it, but she handled circling to this off side well enough. In fact, she did great. I really talked to her and tried to get on an ideal, mutual level. She moved so slowly and “good” into the mounting area. The rider’s wheelchair was parked like L’s, and a crew of well wishers helped her seat Lou. But it went downhill from there.

Lou moved slowly enough out of the mounting ramp and block area, but D was overwhelmed by Lou’s size as she both sat and rode it. D’s core strength did not kick in for her after we mounted and walked away, and it looked like her sternum coupled with her solar plexis got drummed by the horn and mantle of the saddle. She needed to be sat up and stabilized, but as a horse leader I am to concentrate first and foremost on Lou, so I did. When they finally got her sitting upright she was fully in pain by the experience. She could vocalize that she wanted water so it was brought to her, but she could not recover from the intensity of mounting Lou. This was D’s first attempt to ride a horse in a saddle since her traumatic brain injury. She had been a horsewoman before her accident, and it was only fitting that horses should become therapeutic for her – first through hippotheraphy, and now through this attempt to ride Lou. I hope next week we can help D recover and build from her first attempt to ride Lou, and from so much more…

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