A story from our founder, Julie Coady:
Therapeutic horseback riding, really, what does that mean? What does a horse do to help a person with special needs? For one, it is not the “everything” in their life, and it is not the “fix” all to all of their issues. It is a place to leave behind the label of “special needs”, the disability, the therapy, the seeking a cure.
I can share with you what it is from the eyes of the coach for three of our riders at Blue Sky.
The first rider is my buddy, Trey. Trey is 8, but I met him when he was 9 months old. Since then I have been fortunate to be a part of birthday celebrations, finalized adoption celebration, and some really great milestones. Best of all, each week at noon on Sunday, I get to share barn time with him and teach him to ride. Brushing, saddling and getting his horse ready to ride are a few of the things he learns. Victories as he learns to brush, carry a big saddle, snap his helmet, and lead a big horse on his own. We practice over and over and over. His instructors work one on each side, teaching Trey the cues, “On three, one, two, three, tap, tap, go” to make his horse go. Then, wait for it, “One two three,” and he is doing it on his own. He is using his legs to move his horse forward. Then words sometimes sneak out; sometimes we get a “Go” as he is desperate to work to get a chance to trot.
Then there is Preston. He rides each Thursday after school. He has been riding since he was 11 and is now 14. He is a pretty typical young teenager. He worries about getting his homework done (or, rather, his Mom worries about him getting his homework done). He negotiates when we will have a bonfire at Blue Sky or gather for a pizza party. Or, perhaps, he just wants to stay longer after his lesson to help feed the animals. He worries sometimes about the cable on his electric chair, if it is going to give out before the manufacture can figure out the problem and replace it. Losing his electric chair even for a day means some one else has to push him and take him from class to class. He doesn’t want his friends to have to do that. He worries.
At Blue Sky, his worries can shift for a bit. For at Blue Sky, Preston is an athlete. Preston is at practice. He is working to get a buckle or a first place ribbon at the next horse show. He works to communicate with his horse and ride with his horse. Preston seeks to ride with as much communication as possible. Using his seat to push his horse forward, he cues his horse to walk, trot, turn, walk over bridges, and open gates. He works each week to build his endurance and extend his ride time.
Then there are the little moments, too. The moments when his horse is lead up to him as he sways, hanging over the horse from the wheelchair hoist. His horse sniffs him, gently looks up at him, and seeks out his hand to get a rub on the forehead before he moves up for Preston to be placed gently on his back from the harness that holds him 5ft above the ground. Hank, his horse, thinks nothing of this “not so typical” way of having a rider mount him.
Preston’s time at Blue Sky is about an athlete and his horse, a time to practice, a time for friendship, freedom and fun. Me, getting a chance to be with Preston, one of the brightest, funniest people I know is a joy. After many days of rain, Heidi, his side walker said, “I think we are going to need to build an Ark.” Without hesitation Preston says “I Noah guy.” Ah, the joy that is Preston. He will never let me live down the fact that I am the only one that has ever fallen while being his side walker. It was in the show ring, no less!
Terry is another rider at Blue Sky. Like Preston, he has to spend time when he is not at Blue Sky in a wheelchair. Terry has also spent much time in the seat of an F-4 fighter jet, as a Top Gun pilot and a Captain in the Marines. He flew the last combat mission over Vietnam.
Terry has been limited to a wheelchair since 2010.
What I see from a coach’s perspective is one of the most witty, most determined man I have ever meet. Repeat is his favorite horse, and it is clear the feeling is mutual. Terry can stand up from his chair, and therefore mount from a ramp, which some great young veterans helped install. It is a bus type lift with a platform attached for Terry to use. The ramp makes it less work for Terry to mount his horse.
Terry may have days when he can’t ride for long, or when just getting on his horse is exhausting. But, he never complains, never. Also, he never forgets the peppermint. Because no matter how the ride went, Terry knows its all about the peppermint.
It begins when Repeat walks between the two platforms, ready for Terry to mount. Repeat enters calmly allowing himself to be wedged between two platforms, with people standing on each platform ready to help. Three people are needed to assist with Terry’s ride, but Repeat only sees Terry. Repeat stops, turns his nose to meet Terry’s hand, and the two say hello. It’s the most natural, friendly, calm, without fanfare exchange. No “oos” and “awes”, just two friends greeting each other.
Terry stands from his chair, and negotiates the shifting of his weight in order to sit his backside down on Repeat. Terry has to trust his helpers to guide him down to sit sideways in the saddle. Then he has his leg scissored over Repeats neck, landing his left leg, which he has no control over, on the other side of Repeat.
The trust is placed in Repeat, for it is this horse who I see square himself up as Terry rises from his chair. It’s Repeat who knows to stabilize himself, standing square and quiet as Terry finds his seat. And then… after five steps forward, stop, feet in the stirrups, hands on the reins, and then it’s Repeat and Terry guiding the next 20 to 30 minutes. They practice a pattern, building stamina, working on core strength, being an athlete, and being in the arena.
Repeat never sets a foot wrong, never. For he is Terry’s horse and the dismount, like the mount requires a great deal of trust, team work and flat out bravery. Nothing a retired Marine, and a retired rope horse can’t handle. Again, Terry allows his leg to be moved over Repeats neck. Repeat squares up and braces Terry as he uses his arm to brace himself on the saddle horn. Terry leans into Repeat as he lowers himself to the ground. Repeat leans back and supports Terry. No one trained Repeat. He just knows. He knows this is what Terry needs. He needs his brace, his strength, his balance, his mind focused to not place one foot wrong, and he never does. Terry stands, leaning on Repeat, as we waits for his chair to sit in. Right then Repeat knows that it is his time, his space, his Terry and his peppermint that is waiting in Terry’s pocket.
Trey, Preston and Terry are all different generations, different stories and have a different “diagnosis” that bring them to Blue Sky. But they all share Blue Sky, the horses, the place, and the people. Along with the work they do there, they also get the opportunity to be the athlete, the competitor, the “Man in the Arena,” the winner, the loser sometimes, and other times feel the joy of what the star quarter back feels. Not many places in their lives can produce that. And as the founder of Blue Sky, that is what I want people to know.
Trey, Preston, and Terry are more like you and me than they are not. Like us all, they want to be challenged, be part of a team, and perhaps even get the extra joy of knowing a friendship like no other. The gift of friendship that brings trust, love and power from a 1,200-pound horse. Leaving the chair behind, or without words to speak, or joints that don’t work just right.
Despite that, they are an athlete, the star, the “Man in the Arena,” and from what I see, very loved. It shows in those gentle greetings of nose touching hand, of Repeat, Hank and Chewy. That is Blue Sky.
Reference: “The Man In the Arena”
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”