“They say you have to fall off a horse 100 times before you become a really good rider.” Spoken with the wise authority of a long-time horseman weathered by years in the blazing sun, it was a stark contrast to instead glance down at the small, soft-spoken boy who shuffled along next to me. “I’ve fallen once. So I guess that means I have 99 more times to go!” he quipped brightly. Although only ten years old, he was perhaps a wiser horseperson than I. He had been riding regularly from the age of 2 – though it was more than this. In the short half hour that I accompanied him around the barn, I felt that at some point he was no longer my charge, but I his. He went at every “chore” not with reluctant acceptance, but a matter-of-fact pride. And all of this was after his ride had ended and his twin brother was now engaged in his own riding lesson in the arena nearby. I soaked up his youthful energy and marveled over the delight he took in such small things. It was no different with his brother who, upon learning that my friend had not been to the barn before, immediately and joyfully asked “Would you like a tour?”
I went that day to volunteer with PHH’s latest program – Leg Up For Kids, a therapeutic riding program for riders with a wide array of disabilities or challenges. After only two visits, I have decided with some level of certainty that I benefit and learn just as much as the children in the lesson. One hand firmly cupping the heel of a young boy with autism, I spent most of the lesson focusing on keeping up with the horse and being there to assist should he lose his balance. Yet each time I had a moment to steal a glance at him, brownish-red hair sticking out from under the helmet and a smattering of bright freckles across the bridge of his nose, my heart tightened a bit. With his limited expressive language, it was hard at first for me to know how much of Laurie’s instruction he was responding to and absorbing. Then I would watch in amazement as he, without hesitation, would flip around on Snickers’ back to ride backwards or sideways. He seemed fearless. It occurred me then that perhaps some of these children know a secret to accessing a deep inner joy that doesn’t know the limitations and boundaries that we are faced with as adults. It’s not to say that they are not faced with a number of tremendous challenges, ones to which I cannot begin to relate. Yet I was happily mesmerized by the excitement that exuded from them during their time at the barn. A joy that I have felt at times near my own horse and would be well-served to seek out more often. Even during the small things.
Laurie shared with me after the lesson with the adorably freckled boy that during one of his rides, he began counting out loud with her. Not a huge feat given his age, but when you learned that his autism made counting nearly impossible anywhere else – home or school – it was a discovery that brought tears to my eyes. We may never fully know or understand the magic that lies within these beautiful creatures. But I know that they are helping to make incredible things happen for people every single day.