I recently realized that I don’t often write about my experiences with therapeutic riding and equine-assisted learning. I post enough pictures, I mention it in my blog, and I definitely talk about it to those around me, but I never express my thoughts through writing. And truthfully, I am not sure I can organize my thoughts into just one article, or even all that well. However, I am going to try, because it is one of the few things that I can pinpoint has physically, emotionally, and mentally changed my life.
My first introduction to equine therapy came when I was about fourteen years old. Attending a Catholic high school required me to complete an inordinate amount of service hours each year in order to graduate. At the time, I wanted nothing more than to be riding horses … not “serving” others. (How odd to think that now, all I want to do is find a career that allows me to do just that.) Therefore, the only “acceptable” solution in my mind was to find a way to combine service with horses. As a result, I began working with a woman by the name of Ann, who used her own resources to provide lessons and therapy to inner-city kids from the “local” detention centers. And so, twice a week I would get dropped off at the stables, a yuppie white girl in a plaid skirt and pressed Oxford, ready to guide kids my own age—with lives completely opposite of my own—through the tasks of grooming and riding their equine partners.
The kids who came for the program were in Juvie because they had committed crimes—arson, theft, violence, murder—and they most definitely did not look like anyone I grew up or went to school with. They clamored out of their buses in dark, oversized clothing—a sharp contrast to my svelte jodphurs and riding boots. They never made eye contact, and their demeanors were more than just a little rough around the edges. However, each afternoon I was there, I experienced something that you really need to see to believe. As the weeks went on, these kids became my peers, and the horses became their friends. Their rough edges disappeared, and they handled their mounts as though they were carrying a raw egg around all day without breaking it. They sat tall in the saddle, they looked me in the eye, and they had conversations without curse words. They delivered pats on the neck to their kind steeds, and for the first time in their lives, no one was telling them that they were “wrong,” a “detriment to society,” or “useless.”
And yes, it has taken me years to realize the effect that those kids had on me, and the hope that existed those afternoons. The “problems” I thought I had as a teenager were not really problems at all. And now, almost thirteen years later, I am having a similar experience with a different group of kids and their families—realizing yet again that the challenges we think we face daily are not even close to those of who may be around us.
Following my experience in high school, I investigated volunteer opportunities with an equine therapy program for kids and adults with mental, physical, and social handicaps. I remember going to the Special Olympics Equestrian Games for the most successful of these riders, and then going about my own way to hoity-toity horse shows where blue ribbons meant status, not accomplishment. And once out on my own, I had an epiphany that pushed me to seek out another of these facilities, work towards my certification as an instructor, and get involved in something that could affect others in immeasurable ways, not just be a rich girl’s hobby.
What I wasn’t prepared for was how greatly my own life would be affected every day.
I found Misty Meadows Mitey Riders through a simple web search, and realized that they were only twenty minutes from my apartment. I contacted them about volunteering, and started helping out with the horses on the weekends. The family who founded Misty Meadows—and everything that comes with it—has since become a second family to me, and now I spend my weekends on the farm, working with the kids, riding horses, and enjoying time with some of the most genuine people I have ever found.
Just over a year after contacting Mitey Riders for the first time, I am a few hours and one workshop away from my NARHA (North American Riding for the Handicapped Association) instructor certification. The children I work with all day on Saturday leave my body sore and my heart full. The day does not go by when a child who spends their day in a wheelchair gets to see the world from a different view, or a rider with Autism pushes past their challenges and completes a task without effort. By evening, I have had countless hugs, emotional ups-and-downs, and life-changing moments. The children in the program are the most affectionate, loving, and appreciative human beings I have ever met, and their parents treat every child on the farm as their own. For one hour that day, I get the honor of working with a child who challenges me—changes me—and their parents get a moment to catch their breath from a lifestyle that they manage every day.
Through all of this, I have learned several things that would otherwise seem obvious—unconditional love, patience, communication, and motivation. I have always known that there is power in the human-animal relationship—and our amazing horses bring that not only to their riders, but to their handlers as well. But moreover, I have had my faith in the human-human relationship strengthened. And it is definitely safe to say that the kids who ride at Mitey Riders are not the only ones receiving a healthy dose of therapy.