Rock Creek Park Horse Center is closed due to the government shutdown

Rock Creek Park Horse Center is closed due to the government shutdown

As you know, the US federal government has been shut down over a lack of a budget and intense political fighting.  Although I have a political opinion on the issue, I’m here to discuss how a government shutdown has unintended consequences — in this case affecting our barn.

The facility where I ride is located in a national park, and is run by a contractor.  The horses are owned by the contractor or by individuals who board at the barn.  But the buildings and the surrounding property are owned by the American people, and governed by the National Park Service.  So when the federal government was shut down, so was our barn.

I’m a self-described horse junkie.  I ride for fun.  I ride to compete.  For me, the closure is an interruption to my training.  That worries me because I deliberately schedule myself to ride two or three times a week.  Considering I have a day job, that’s a lot for me.  Over this past summer, I ramped up my schedule to ride even more, in an effort to prepare for competition down the road.  Now, I have a forced time off from riding, and I worry that my skills will degrade.

On a relative scale, a week off is nothing.  But the last time we Americans went through this, it lasted three weeks.  Sure, I can run, and do the elliptical in my basement, and go to yoga in order to keep up my fitness level.  But there’s something very different and very necessary about saddle time.  And I’m left to wonder how much my riding will suffer as a result.

Tank, the horse I ride most often is a quarter horse who tends to stock up in the hind when he doesn’t get enough work.  For now, he stands in his stall for the most part, getting out very little because we are only allowed a skeleton crew to feed and water and muck stalls.  And I wonder how Tank will fare as a result of all this.

Rachael on Bertha

Rachael on Bertha

My daughter also rides.  I introduced her to the sport in order to teach her some of the life lessons that just have to be experienced.  I will take all the parenting help I can get from Bertha, the cranky old retired show pony.  You see, Bertha can teach a kid about respect and consistency and trying again in a way no person can.

When those lessons are learned, it’s a beautiful thing to see the result — a self-confident child and a talented pony doing things together cooperatively and achieving incredible results.  Maybe I should take Bertha to Capitol Hill!  But I digress…

At the end of the day, though, my worries are a relatively minor annoyance.

You see, in addition to lessons and boarding, our barn runs a therapeutic riding program.  One of the groups we serve is emotionally and physically challenged children.  And right now, all those rides are cancelled.  In fact, giving a lesson is technically illegal right now.  Although our instructors would gladly give the lessons for free while we’re under this budgetary gun, it’s illegal to do it even on a volunteer basis.  So we can’t.  We sit, and wait for Congress to pass a budget and get the government re-opened so we can bring the therapy kids back to the barn.

Therapeutic riding in the park

Therapeutic riding in the park

While the lessons will start up again eventually, I worry about how far back it puts these kids to not have their time with the horses.  I can’t imagine being the parent to one of these kids, and trying to explain to them why they can’t go to the barn.  Why they can’t see their horses.  Why they can’t go riding.  And I’m sure their doctors are no happier about this interruption of these kids’ therapy rides.  I guess no one thought about all this when Congress decided to close down the government.

There is one boy, in particular, whom the therapeutic instructors have told us to cheer for whenever we see him.  You see, when we cheer, it really spurs him to try harder and do more.  So every time I see him, I cheer and do fist bumps and high fives and encourage him to show me what he’s doing.  I usually see him every week.  Now I haven’t seen him in nearly two weeks.  I know his body misses the physical benefits that his rides on Okie provide.  I also know that his spirit misses Okie even more desperately.  And I wonder how far behind he is with his riding.

Wounded warriors

Wounded warriors

Our barn also runs and a Wounded Warrior program.  We’re talking about servicemen and women who have physical injuries like traumatic brain injuries, or psychological conditions like PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).

As you can imagine, these soldiers are often self-conscious about how they look during these sessions.  To ease their concerns, the US Park Police volunteer — in uniform — as spotters during these rides.  The camaraderie of having a fellow “soldier” with them during their therapy rides allows them to really commit themselves to the ride so they get more benefit.

Veterans in the program have done incredibly well.  Their doctors and families have noticed improvements in walking, balance, and self-esteem as a result.   We are fortunate to witness their extraordinary drive and inner strength.  It is an honor to be part of making a difference in their lives.

But sadly, now, we can’t do that.  These therapy rides are also forbidden.  The lessons are cancelled.  The riding instructors can’t teach.  The Park Police volunteers can’t volunteer.  And I wonder how far behind our soldiers are with their riding.

These are innocent kids and decorated veterans.  It seems like a lousy way to run a Popsicle stand, never mind an entire country.  These people need their horses.  We want to give it to them.  Now if Congress would just do their job, pass a budget, and let us all get back to the barn…

Sue van der Linden
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