‘There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man." Winston Churchill
Everyone knew the day Mario arrived at the barn that it was something rare and special. We have worked with a number of extraordinary people, but Mario touched us with his enormous smile and joy on that first Thursday last spring. When his interpreter Sorelis and caregiver Kim pushed Mario’s wheelchair up close to Dooley, a 14 hand Haflinger, who may be one of the most talented therapy horses any of us has known, Mario put his hand on the horse’s soft muzzle and the horse responded by quietly lowering his head and there was an instant connection. Mario’s expression was one of a man who had somehow been liberated and it washed over us like soft summer rain -- this was the beginning of a wonderful journey for Mario and for us.
I’ll let you in on my secret, something that I have in common with other horse people. Horses have the power to fix you. They can fix your mind and they can fix your body. Sure, they can wrack you up too, but that’s another story, for another day. When I ride, and I have been riding since before I could talk, a transformation takes place -- my mind slows way down, time stretches out and becomes so thin, like a fine piece of filament, that I can hardly feel the pressure of it. There is no other moment, except that moment -- the moment of walking out into a field, the moment of trotting down a trail in the forest, the moment of crossing a river, the moment a herd of deer appears in the distance or witnessing a hawk’s shadow pass over us...my horse and I content in our complete solidarity. To say that it is a Meditation is an understatement. And what riding does for me physically is equally as powerful. I can arrive at the barn stiff. sore, my back aching, my joints not nearly as loose as they should be -- in fact, if I go several days without riding, my body falls into disrepair. But put me on my horse for a couple of hours or for even as little as thirty minutes and everything is right again, as though I’d visited a shrink, a massage therapist and a chiropractor all in one afternoon.
Years ago, I went to a new doctor for a check up. She asked me what I did for exercise. I replied that I walked my dogs and rode my horse. She craned her neck and with that tone that must be taught in a required class in medical school, she said to me, ”Riding horses is not exercise.“ It was all I could do not to laugh in her face, ”Have you ever ridden a horse?“ I asked and of course, her answer was no, to which I quipped, ”Well, then, I suggest you ride a horse, then come back and tell me its not exercise.“
In order to sit in the saddle and move with a horse, even at a slow paced walk, one must use their core, their legs, and their balance. As the pace is picked up, so is the exertion level -- its not like sitting in a chair that is simply rolling forward. Riding forces every part of your body to work and move in a disciplined and strengthening manner, and this is especially true of your hips and your back -- remember this: the motion of the horse beneath you can duplicate the action of walking -- as his shoulders move, your shoulders move, as his hips move, your hips move -- his muscle rhythm generates a muscle rhythm for you.
So if riding can make an able bodied person like myself feel so fixed, so energized, so aligned, and so relaxed, imagine what it can do for someone who’s body and mind are afflicted. This is the philosophy and science behind a thing called hippotherapy.
Most every Thursday, you can find me volunteering at the N.C. Therapeutic Riding Center. I have been privileged to work with the center for close to five years now. And before working with them I worked with Pegasus Therapeutic Riding, one of the oldest therapeutic riding organizations in the country, located in Connecticut. I feel so fortunate to work with a group of people who share the idea that horses can fix people...physical therapists, therapeutic riding instructors, and volunteers like me, who can use their horse skills to help people. But none of us would be able to do our job if it were not for the horses. Therapy horses are uniquely equipped to carry people who require the utmost of care. These horses must be tuned in to their work and tuned out to the happenings of the world around them, what we in the horse world call Bomb Proof. A quiet disposition must be accompanied by something even greater though, an ability to connect with the special cargo they are carrying, and I think I have been witness to that quality in the little horse named Dooley.
Mario is just one of the riders I have had the luck to work with, but I think he certainly stands out as my favorite. I have enjoyed working with autistic children and children with various disorders such as Cerebral Palsy, Down’s Syndrome and Angelman’s. When I was first asked to work with adults, specifically head-injured adults, I was reluctant. There was something scary about working with men, who were close to my age, middle aged, that had suffered some serious trauma that rendered them almost helpless. Working with children was less threatening to me, because their diagnoses couldn’t touch me personally, I didn’t have to concern myself with developing their disorders. But you see, to be with grown people, who once had normal everyday lives, who worked, and were married, and perhaps rode horses, this was something that I didn’t think I could deal with emotionally. None of us want to think about how our lives could change in an instant -- a car accident, falling off one’s horse, a near fatal mistake with a chain saw, a drug reaction, or, as in Mario’s case, a near fatal work related injury. Mario, who is close to forty years old, was once a strong and independent man who hailed from South America and, as far as we know, rode horses when he was young. Now he is dependent on others to care for him and speak for him, and a wheel chair is his only mode of transportation.
It takes at least six of us to help Mario ride:
1) Dooley, the horse
2) Mary Beth, the physical therapist
3) Sorelis, Mario’s interpreter
4) Kim, Mario’s caregiver
5) Mollie and Peg, volunteers and sidewalkers
6) Me, volunteer and horse handler
On that first sunny Thursday, we brought Dooley out to meet Mario -- and Sorelis told us as Mario and Dooley conversed in a language all their own, that mind-melding that can occur between an animal and a person, that she had never seen Mario smile like that. That Mario tended to brood and sulk, but the sight of Dooley was an instant mood changer for Mario. And this was before we even put him in the saddle. That first day, like all the Thursdays to come afterward, Kim rolled Mario’s wheelchair up a special ramp that we have in the indoor ring. There is a platform at the top of the ramp. This puts Mario and his helpers, including our leader, physical therapist, Mary Beth up over Dooley’s back, so essentially Mario can be lowered into the saddle. So its my job to bring Dooley quietly and slowly up to the ramp, placing his flank and shoulder as close to the ramp as possible, and then Mollie stands on the ”off-side“ of Dooley to be there as Mario is put in the saddle...Mollie’s job is critical to keep Mario steady and from falling. So then the transfer begins. I stand at Dooley’s head and ask him to be perfectly still, as Mary Beth lifts Mario out of his wheel chair and sits him in the saddle with his back facing Mollie. Then Mary Beth lifts Mario’s right leg as she slowly turns him so that he’s facing forwards in the saddle, and his right leg swings over Dooley’s neck, so that now Mario is sitting astride of his pony. Then there is a very slow procession forward, as Mollie supports Mario from the right hand side and Mary Beth walks down the ramp while supporting Mario from the left hand side and me at Dooley’s head steadying his walk. And all the while Sorelis is speaking Spanish to Mario, telling him to breath and relax and to trust us.
Once Mary Beth is level with all of us, and off the ramp, she and Mollie check to make sure Dooley’s girth is tight....a slipping saddle could mean disaster. And then they help Mario stretch his legs, which are very stiff and sometimes shaky, so that he can put his feet in the stirrups. And Sorelis speaks to us in English and Mario in Spanish -- ”are you comfortable?“ Si ”Relax“ Si ”Breathe“ Si ”Sit up tall Mario“ Si -- Mario always begins his ride feeling tense. But never as tense as he was on the first day. His wide smile pinched into a grimace at the moment that we put him in the saddle....Mario was holding his breath and fretting. He was squeezing Dooley’s sides with his heels and as everyone was adjusting this thing and that, I told Sorelis to tell Mario to relax his heels, that squeezing Dooley like that, was telling Dooley to GO...well when Mario heard that Dooley might GO FAST he went into an even more anxious state. So Sorelis looked at me for some kind of help and I looked at Mary Beth and Mary Beth said, ”No, no, Shannon is here to keep Dooley from doing anything bad. Shannon won’t let Dooley go fast. Tell Mario that Shannon is the Queen of Horses and that she will keep him safe!“ and with that Sorelis looked up at Mario and said ”Shannon es la reina de caballos, Mario!“ and Mario exhaled and smiled at me and I smiled at him and his legs relaxed and he was no longer gripping and grimacing.
Since that first day, Mario’s balance and strength have improved such that we can walk Dooley faster than before and Mario needs less and less support from Mollie and Mary Beth at his sides...they keep their hands on his legs and ribs at all times, but they don’t have to hold him upright quite as much anymore. And Mario can stand in the stirrups for long periods of time while we count in Spanish...uno, dos, tres....treinta y cinco...cincuenta....ochenta! Its a triumph really. And our merry band tools around the ring laughing and conducting a somewhat funny Spanish class. Mario’s speech is labored and delayed, but while riding Dooley he can work on not only his body but his cognition. We play memory games with him and ask him questions -- right before Thanksgiving we urged Mario to name all the capital cities of South America -- and he did!
When Mario is done with his ride, Mary Beth helps him dismount to the ground and Kim brings his wheel chair to his side. Once he is safely seated, he can visit with Dooley. Dooley has a habit of wanting to see his rider once they are back on the ground at the end of the session -- its as though he is recognizing their shared experience, he honors them with a glance and a nudge. And Mario always thanks Dooley and playfully takes the rope as if to say, ”He’s mine, I will take him home with me.“
So, you see, its not just a pony ride, its not just an outing, therapeutic riding goes much deeper than that. It is physically and emotionally beneficial to people who need to connect with the physical world that they can be so isolated from because of their afflictions.
I’ll let you in on another secret. My work as a volunteer with this program never fails to leave me full of gratitude and peace. I can arrive at the center with all my thoughts and worries hurtling around in my skull, and then magically, just like when I ride my own horse, I find that helping someone like Mario ride fixes me. And sometimes, sometimes when I am out there alone in the fields and the forests with my horse, in my moment, I sometimes ride for Mario, I tell myself that this gallop or this jump or this river crossing is for Mario, and that way I honor my fortune and my freedom.