by Vera Nicholas-Gervais
Picked by CS intern: Jesse Ianniello
I’ve always loved horses, and for some time I’d been looking for a volunteer opportunity in my new community. The idea that I might be able to pursue both interests at once hadn’t actually crossed my mind. So I couldn’t get to the phone fast enough when I saw an ad in the paper about a search for volunteers at a therapeutic riding center for handicapped children.
“Yes, we’re still looking for people,” the woman told me. “We’re having a training session for new volunteers this Saturday. You’re welcome to come.”
“Thanks,” I answered, barely containing my enthusiasm. “I’ll be there.”
I joined a small group of new volunteers that day. We were perfect strangers with an instant connection, all drawn there by the same potent mix of heart and soul-a passion for helping, a passion for horses, and a simple knowing that we had come to the right place. By the end of training session, we all knew we’d be back for the first of many weekly riding classes together.
That first Saturday, ten children between the ages of eight and twelve showed up. Ten struggling young bodies and ten eager, loving smiles greeted us. “This is Robbie,” said the instructor, placing a gentle hand on each small shoulder as she conducted a round of introductions. “And this is Christine.” We went around the circle of excited faces. All the children faced some level of physical or mental challenge-sometimes both. Jenny had multiple sclerosis, Kevin lived with cerebral palsy, Christine with Down’s syndrome, and Robbie a spinal?cord injury. I marveled at these children, healthy souls and wholesome appetites for living shining through their bodily constraints.
The following Saturday, I arrived at the stables in time to groom my assigned horse before class, put on his tack and ensure that he was sound, calm and ready for his small rider. This week, I would be handling Stripe, a speckled?gray Appaloosa with comfortably rounded sides and an indulgent, ever?patient nature. Today, Stripe was the designated therapy horse for nine?year?old Katie, a victim of muscular dystrophy.
Curly auburn hair framing her delicate, pale face, Katie arrived at the stables in a wheelchair. The spokes glistened in the sun as her mother helped her up, steadied her and introduced us. My eyes met Katie’s-an exchange full of shared excitement and anticipation. “Katie has been waiting impatiently for hours,” her mother explained with a smile.
We set about preparing for the ride. I fitted and attached Katie’s safety helmet and adjusted Stripe’s specially adapted saddlery. I helped her mount and shared her triumphant grin as she settled into the saddle, perched above and beyond her limitations. I led Stripe around the arena during the class, quietly coaching both horse and rider as the instructor led the group from the center of the ring. We walked, trotted and moved together for an hour. Katie’s tortured body gradually relaxed into Stripe’s fluid movements, becoming one with the animal.
In silent awe, I let the wordless, poignant communication between Katie and Stripe unfold. Acutely sensitive to her well being, Stripe intuitively softened his gait at the slightest perception of Katie’s imbalance or discomfort in the saddle. The tone of her voice induced the same effect, even though she was unable to use verbal commands that the horse was trained to recognize. Surprise, delight, hesitation, fear-Stripe understood and responded patiently, lovingly-like a great teacher.
At the end of the class, I helped Katie dismount. Color in her cheeks now, she smiled radiantly and arched her thin arms around Stripe’s lowered neck. He kept his head down. Burying her face in his mane, Katie murmured softly, “I love you, Stripe.” I stood motionless a few feet away, touched by a moment of uncommon beauty.
The magic drew me back each week. No two Saturdays were the same. Rotations of therapy horses and riders gave volunteers the opportunity to get to know each animal and child. Every Saturday offered a glimpse of an intensely intimate connection between equine and human spirit. Every Saturday revealed the power of this fabled four?legged creature to triumph over a child’s physical and mental adversity. Every Saturday, a child held the reins of freedom and borrowed Pegasus’s wings.
For me, volunteering was a personal journey into unexpected enrichment and inspiration. I helped small children revel in another realm of physical and spiritual being, a space only their horses could create for them. I saw these children empowered and renewed by their equine companions. I rediscovered my deep love for horses and drew lessons from their gentle ways. And last but not least, I learned that giving yields greater generosity than it asks.
Inspired by my experience, I picked up the phone one day and called my brother at the family farm where I had spent my teenage years. “How’s Cowboy doing?” I asked of my own horse.
“He’s just fine,” my brother replied, “but I think he feels a bit forgotten.”
And that’s why, a week later, Cowboy came out of semi-retirement and was transported to his new home hundreds of miles away-with me. Now Cowboy-my retired showhorse with huge brown eyes, a stripe down his back and a penchant for pleasing people-volunteers, too.
[EDITORS’ NOTE: For information on the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association, contact P.O. Box 33150, Denver, CO 80233; 800-369-RIDE; E-mail: email@example.com; Web site: www.narha.org.]