Several years ago, I dedicated about one day a week as a volunteer at a therapeutic riding facility for adults with disabilities in Florida. Even though I started out volunteering at the farm to fulfill a summer class requirement, I was able to get so much more out of the experience than I thought I would.
It was my first day out at the farm, only about an hour or so into my volunteer shift when it hit me. It was muggy Friday morning, so the day’s lessons were being conducted under the newly constructed covered arena.
I, along with two other volunteers, a 14-year-old high school freshman and an a 60-year-old horse enthusiast walked Tie, a handsome dark bay Morgan therapy horse, out to the arena. We were the team picked to help Charlotte, the lead trainer and adviser of the therapy program’s, next lesson.
As we entered the arena, Charlotte briefed us on Paul, our rider for the next hour. Paul is a man in his mid 50s who suffers from the most severe cause of autism I’ve ever witnessed in an adult. He’s been working with Charlotte and Tie, the therapy horse, for several years. Charlotte told us how things were going well for at first. Those involved said they saw significant progress in Paul’s personality and attitude when working with the horses., and what he was able to take with him after each ride. But all of a sudden, about a year and a half ago, Paul decided he no longer wanted to ride.
Ever since, Charlotte has been working with him to try to get back on the horse, but all attempts up until today proved futile. Paul would stand at the edge of the arena, helmet secured on his head and riding boots on, but as soon as Tie and a team of volunteers would approach him, he would pull away and rescind back on the other side of the arena’s fence.
About a month or so prior to this session, Charlotte had finally gotten Paul to come out and at least pet Tie, and even lead the horse around the arena while on the ground. Paul’s doctors, nurses, family members and even Charlotte, have no idea what caused Paul’s certain and sudden apprehension of horses. Charlotte was hopeful, however, on this muggy Friday morning.
We were all introduced to Paul, a middle-aged man with a kind heart. He happily hugged us all, yet looked at us with such a blank stare. He patted Tie gently, before Charlotte coaxed Paul into trying to sit in the saddle once again. At the mention of getting on the horse, Paul began to freeze up, and clutched onto Charlotte immediately. But then, out of nowhere, with the four of us showing Paul how wonderful and calm Tie was, Paul was able to climb into the saddle for the first time in over a year.
My job on this particular morning was to stand alongside of the horse and provide Paul with extra support, if needed. I held his hand while he was very nervous and tense at first, then helped him with therapy exercises from the ground.
Throughout our lesson, Paul slowly began to loosen up. By the end of the ride, Paul was smiling and able to ride comfortably with his hands held straight up in the air, or leaning down to hug Tie.
We even ventured out of the arena and into a nearby 20-acre pasture for a short trail ride. This part of the lesson is what touched me the most.
Paul seemed to brighten up. His blank, glazed stare was gone. He looked out through the woods at the other horses grazing near by, and named all of them for us. He picked flowers and gave one to each of us before climbing back into the saddle with a new found confidence for the ride back to the barn.
It was then, that it hit me. I had volunteered at local soup kitchens and other community organizations before, but had never seen anything quite like this. It was amazing to see how well Paul was able to connect with an animal, and how the bond between them was helping him mentally, emotionally, and physically.
I wouldn’t have traded that feeling nor the experience for anything in the world. For the first time in my life, I felt as though I was making a difference, and sharing the joy of horses on a deeply personal level.
I was reminded on this experience recently, as I watched a woman I ride with regularly hold ride double with her autistic child on a calm and patient Quarter Horse mare, Daisy. I stood and watched from afar as Carol’s daughter smiled and laughed as they walked and trotted in the open pasture.
Being an equestrian, I believe that the bond and relationship between a human and animal is therapeutic in itself. But what these people are able to learn and do through the help of a horse is incredible. I have witnessed, like in the story I recounted above, how this sort of bond can help people of all different backgrounds change their lives.
If you have the chance to volunteer, I really recommend it. Not only is it a way to give back, but watching the way horses can change and help another person’s life is really quite moving.