Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Keep your head up! ....or not...

For the last year and a half, Thursday mornings have been spent at the barn. I volunteer for the Lanark County Therapeutic Riding Program. At first I had no idea what it would be like. All I knew was that I like horses and I wanted to get out and meet new people in the community.

The organization provides mentally & physically challenged adults & children with the opportunity to go horseback riding. The volunteers get there ahead of the riders, to groom & tack up the horses, getting them ready for their sessions. Once the horses are ready & the riders have arrived, we help them onto the horses and then either lead the horse or side-walk to support the rider.

At first I was working with the children. Most of them were quiet, some were funny…but the majority of them didn’t communicate verbally at all. The rare moments of eye contact were all we could look forward to. There was one little girl that literally screamed from the time she got into the barn till the time she left the barn. That was stressful for all of us…especially the horses.

Then one day I was asked to fill in for a volunteer on the adult session. This was totally different. I didn’t think it would be as fulfilling. I was wrong. The adults seemed so much happier. When the weather was nicer we would go outside in the field. And when it’s not too muddy, we could take the trail that follows the river.

Absolutely breathtaking, it’s so peaceful. You can almost imagine you’re in a different time. The first time I went back to help with the adults again, I was shocked to realize that some of them remembered me. That is something that I never expected. Having never worked with mentally challenged adults on an ongoing basis before, I had no expectations whatsoever.
The first time ‘Alexander’ hugged me. Or when ‘Cal’ remembered my name. I came home those days, dirty, dusty, tired and sore….but I was floating. Sweetie noticed it. The kids noticed it. And when I explained to them what happened, they understood why I kept going back.


There was a young girl ‘Annie’ that has Down Syndrome. She didn’t speak or communicate very well. And when she was on the horse, she would squeeze the side-walker’s hand till it was blue.

This year when the Spring session started up, I was so excited to see them again. When I saw ‘Annie’ walking towards the shed, I called out ‘Hi Annie!’
She looked up at me and waved!
We were all blown away.
‘Did you see that?!’ ‘Yes, what’s up with that?’

This year she’s not holding on for dear life to the side-walker’s hand. She’s hanging on to the reins. And during one exercise, she had both hands up on her helmet while the horse walked slowly from one cone to the next.
‘Wow, that was great ‘Annie’….did you have fun?’ I asked.
She let out a raspberry sigh and added, ‘yeah’ after it.
I let out a Whoooopp! and held up my hand…she high-fived me and then giggled.

I was even lucky enough to talk Sweetie into joining me on Thursdays this session. The very first day he was there, the lady in charge got his name mixed up. One of the riders a young girl ‘Jessie’ thought that was funny and joined in to call him ‘SpongeBob’. Everyone laughed, and it stuck for the rest of the day.

But the next week, when the riders remembered him. They laughed & teased SpongeBob. You could see his heart smiling. They loved him. And I knew he was hooked.

A few weeks ago, we were headed down the trail along the river. I was leading the lead horse. I noticed a snake on the trail. I had to stop everyone. If you know me at all, you know I am terrified of snakes. And I don’t care if it’s ‘only a garter’! So don’t bother.

I had to stop the caravan because I was worried that if the horses didn’t spook from the snake, that they might pick up on my fear. So I switched spots with someone that wasn’t afraid. I was now with the third horse. I figured all snakes would be safely out of sight by the time I got there.

I was wrong. I was noticing them everywhere now. By the time we got to the end of the trail, there had been 4 snakes and a snapping turtle. I politely asked my rider how much room she had in her saddle…as if there was just one more on the way back, I might be joining her. I had been joking the whole way and had everyone laughing….however, underneath it all, I could have died I was so scared.

I told one rider that if she kept laughing, I would switch spots with her and she could walk back. She came in a wheelchair. This had her in hysterics, laughing. Yet I was still serious. No one had any idea.

I decided that I had to stop looking down. I was seeing the grass move everywhere! I could hardly breathe. So I was just going to continue hanging on to the horse and look up. Wayy up! Then if there was a snake or a turtle or a lizard on the trail, I would have no idea. And no reason to be afraid.

And it worked.
For awhile.

Next thing I know, my feet were out from under me. I slipped in a mud puddle and almost went under the horse. If I hadn’t been hanging on to the saddle, who knows what might have happened.
I explained to them why I didn’t see the puddle and for the entire rest of the trail ride all I heard was quiet giggles & tee hee’s.

I told the rider, ‘You know I’m not a professional….I’m just here for comic relief’.

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