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My 1,200 Lb. Therapist

Updated: Sep 18, 2021

My introduction to equine therapy began the day of my assessment (right out of the shoot so to speak). I had set up an appointment with Deb, the on-site physical therapist, to assess my needs and determine which horse was best suited to me. That evening I met her at the riding facility where she asked me a few medical questions then led me out to the barn.

Deb pointed at a ramp that ended with a small platform at the top and informed me it was a mounting ramp. Standing next to the “mounting ramp” was a beautiful chestnut quarter horse named Scotchie. Deb suggested I drive my scooter up the ramp to the platform and she would figure out how to mount me from there. She didn’t realize she was speaking to a girl who had never ridden before, with the exception being one barn-soar Clydesdale that had raced back to the barn with her hanging on for dear life.

I gulped and obediently followed Deb’s instructions. I had really expected to ease into this riding stuff—not jump on a horse before I’d even signed up for lessons. Once on the mounting platform Deb had me stand, with her support, and slowly pivoted me until my back was toward the horse then carefully sat me down on his back (he was tacked up with a pad and surcingle in place of a saddle). A volunteer stood on a mounting block on the opposite side (off-side) of the horse and kept me steady from behind. A very short volunteer stood in front of the horse, keeping him steady from the front. The whole thing seemed highly unorthodox, and frankly a little dangerous but I’m all about trust so I determined to trust the process.

I was now sitting sideways on a very large animal that I’m sure could have plowed right through that tiny volunteer in front of him. Thankfully he didn’t seem to have anywhere else to go because he stood nice and still despite my nervous demeanor. Remember, when it came to horses I was a complete rookie. I had never even heard of equine therapy until a few days earlier when a friend suggested it to me.

It was time to face the front of the horse. We carefully turned my body to the right while Deb lifted my right leg over Scotchie’s neck. The “off-sides” volunteer took my leg from her and gently brought it down. At least I was facing the right direction now. Unfortunately my body has a mind of its own and immediately went into extension. My muscles contracted and my body stiffened straight as a board. Rather then sitting on Scotchie I was lying on him.

Getting my body to bend even in the best of circumstances requires a great deal of strength and patience (my laughing wasn’t helping). Deb started by slowly bending one knee at a time, she showed me how “breaking the tone” in one part of my body helped lessen the stiffness in the rest of my muscles. Before long I was sitting up, facing the front of the horse, holding onto the surcingle, and feeling quite proud of myself.

Deb then fastened a gait belt around my waist, which seemed completely out of place on top of a horse. She bent down from her perch on the mounting platform, placed her right arm across my left thigh and directed the off-sides volunteer to do the same on my right side then she told me to ask Scotchie to walk-on. After a great deal of hesitation I looked at the volunteer holding the lead rope and very softly said “walk-on.” Deb corrected me by telling me to speak to the horse and say it with authority. Against my better judgement I did what I was told. Sitting on the horse was quite an accomplishment, did I really have to ask this ginormous animal to move?

We slowly ambled out of the mounting area into the arena. I sensed rather then saw the distance between me and the ground as my unsteady body seemed to move contrary to the horse’s forward motion. We halted just inside the arena while Deb set my feet in stirrups hanging from the surcingle and checked the girth. Once everything checked out she and the other side-walker took ahold of the gait belt from each side, and we proceeded to walk around the arena.

With each step Scotchie took I teetered from one side to the other. I was sure I would fall off at any moment. My hands clutched the surcingle as if my life depended on it (which it did). Deb kept offering unsolicited advice such as,” Relax. Breathe. Loosen your grip.” At one point she pointed out that I had a white-knuckle-affect going on. She was right. The horse’s movement was big, unsettling, and foreign to me. But the side walkers held onto the gait belt which kept me from wavering too far to either side. Slowly I loosened my grip and started to notice things beyond the horse’s head.

Throughout the entire process Scotchie didn’t utter a single complaint. I was amazed by his gentle nature and enduring patience. Deb explained the benefits of the horse’s movement with my body’s interaction, but I wasn’t absorbing a thing she was saying. I was at once both scared to death and elated. I couldn’t believe I was actually riding a horse Granted there were centurions guarding both sides of me, nonetheless I was riding a horse!

Twenty-six years later

I’m still sitting in the saddle and playing with horses every chance I get. Yesterday was our first day back after winter break. You can see from the expression on Caleb’s face how he feels while sitting on Red’s back. His expression speaks for all of us benefitting from equine therapy and the hours of dedication it takes to facilitate these amazing organizations.

I want to express my personal gratitude to Little Bit Therapeutic Riding Center Warm Beach Therapeutic Horsemanship Courageous Connections Spirit Therapeutic Riding Center and the hundreds of dedicated volunteers it takes to operate these wonderful establishments.

If you are interested in joining an amazing team of volunteers working with children and adults with special needs please visit PATH International's website to locate an equine therapeutic facility near you.

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