Today was my first day as an intern representing Spalding University at a therapeutic horseback riding center for individuals with disabilities. Although very excited to have this opportunity, I woke up already feeling exhausted and desperate to be on time.
I am battling my second kidney infection in as many months, and the news warned of thick fog on the ground this morning, making the 40-plus mile commute from my home near downtown Louisville to the rural county where the riding center is located seem even more daunting than it usually would. At times like this it feels very hard to imagine that I grew up on a farm – and that for the first 23 years of my life lengthy commutes like this were the norm – not the exception.
(As it turned out, I was a few minutes late getting to the barn this morning… but only because of a missing street sign!)
I had never been to the center, but as my car inched ever closer to the cluster of buildings perched on a slight rise at the end of a long gravel driveway, I instinctively took the path snaking around the indoor arena and easily wound my way back to the stable. It isn’t until later when I’m on the way home that I smile in recognition of this unerring sense of direction around barns – a testament, I imagine, to the many long years spent chasing horses in my younger days.
I guess I shouldn’t have been too surprised. I mean, every seasoned horse person knows that the heart of a horse farm lies in the stable, right? It’s not in the feed room, or the arena, it can’t be found in the wash racks, the hayloft, or the tack room. No. The heart is definitely in the stable. Where the horses are.
For some of us, even just the word stable has a strange way of instantly bringing about feelings of comfort and warmth. Seeming at times to spring forth, peripheral memories of a time before ours, almost forgotten. A simpler time, when horse and buggy was still the main mode of transport, and stables were lively, pleasant, mirthful places that overflowed with the delightful ordered chaos that only a barnyard can possess. Or, perhaps these feelings come from even longer ago (if you believe it) when a simple stable housed the king of kings on the night of his birth. Whatever the reason, stables have always been magical places for me, and this special needs riding center is no exception.
The truth is, I was nervous as heck. Not about the horses – but the people. They (or rather the endless possibilities of what they might be like) were making me feel nervous in the way that only horse people can. After all, I might be a tad bit rusty when it comes to horsemanship, but I would humbly submit that I can still hold my own in almost any equine situation. It really is “kind of like riding a bike” for me. After all, I had spent every stolen moment of my childhood soaking up everything horse, and several more years as a teenager and young adult competing in various disciplines on the professional show circuit… That is, until I gave up my horses after making the decision to retire at age 17… But I digress… That’s another story altogether! What was really making me nervous about the people is sort of complicated, but I’ll try my best to explain it.
Basically, I was worried that they would somehow prevent me from getting too close to the horses. So many places where I could go to “ride” or “be around horses” do just that in an understandable (yet overbearing) effort to prevent injury. You see, there’s this unspoken rule among experienced horse people: If someone claims to know a lot about horses, keep a very close eye on them while they are around your horses!
In reality, the center turned out to be quite different from many of my previous stable experiences. In fact, I was surprised to find that a slew of things about the center bear an uncanny resemblance to the stable at my childhood home in Ohio, which is still run by my mother. Happily, I was thrown immediately into helping one of the instructors – a smiling, businesslike woman named Helen – halter and lead a miniature donkey and pony pair out to a nearby pasture. Then, I was paired with a competent, girlish woman named Lori to complete the morning chores. A talkative, dedicated volunteer who’s been lending a hand at the center for nearly five years, Lori proved to be invaluable in helping me learn the basic particulars of the barn.
First, we set off to do a pasture check – a process in which you walk the farm, checking for anything out of place. From the horses themselves – who must be routinely checked for cuts, lameness, unusual behavior, etc. – to the fences and water troughs, pasture checks are a vital part of any responsible farm operation.
Next came the real fun – time to clean stalls! I was given the odious task of cleaning out the stall that is shared by the mini donkey and horse. They are known as Hopper and Fudge, and by the looks of the stall I would swear they must have had a party during the night! I won’t try to pretend that this part of the job is very fun, but it is good exercise, especially for someone who sits behind a desk and stares at a computer all day.
By the time chores were completed it was time for class to start and the barn really began to hum. It was strange being just an observer while everyone else scurried around tacking up horses. I was used to being in charge, or at least doing something, but they had asked me to stand back and watch until the upcoming formal training session on the 27th of June, and I am more than happy to oblige. You see, although I have tons of horse experience, I have no experience with therapeutic riding, so I know I have a lot to learn and am grateful for the opportunity!
I was surprised to find the class very similar to any beginner riding class, except here there is a sidewalker on both sides of the horse next to the rider, while a third person (all of which are volunteers) is up front leading the animal. As I watch them deftly traverse various obstacles and glide through several paces and a multitude of exercises, it occurs to me how vital it is for the volunteers to be knowledgeable and to keep safety first. What a risk they are all taking, perching a virtually defenseless human being on the broad, strong backs of what could arguably be called man’s true best friend! But as I watched the riders come out of their shells, glowing with newfound confidence if only for the length of class, I knew suddenly what brings all of these people out of bed so early on a Saturday morning.. and I silently vowed to let myself be swept up in this current to see where it takes me.