As the Director of The Pony Express Equine Assisted Skills for Youth, an equine rescue that includes a life skill/leadership program for youth utilizing horses as both guide and teacher, you always go in search of happy endings. It is the ultimate gift and reward to be rewarded not necessarily in dollars and cents, but in the sense that you have made a difference in the quality of the lives of both the horses and riders that come your way. Such was the case this sunny Saturday in July.
The location was Hoofbeats Park, a lovely equine facility located just slightly north of the homey home town of Healdsburg. The event was a schooling show made possible through the energy and efforts of Katie Moore and a herd of other horse folks from the Hoofbeats Pony Club. But this was not destined to be just another one of the many schooling shows that I had participated in over the course of nearly three decades in the equine industry. For when one goes about rescuing and rehabbing challenged horses and their oft times equally challenged riders, the challenge isn’t in the arena, it’s getting to the arena. And that would be what this day would be all about.
As I pulled into Hoofbeat’s parking lot a little after 12 noon I noticed that my passenger, Jamie had gone suddenly silent. At fourteen years of age Jamie had been participating in our Equine Assisted Skills for Youth Program for three years. Over time I had watched Jamie make slow but steady progress from a once painfully shy, quiet young lady with so little confidence in her skill or ability that she was unable to take a riding lesson if there was anyone else (besides horses), present in the arena.
Time atop a horse had transformed Jamie into a brilliantly talented equine aficionado and encouraged her to be more outgoing in other aspects of her life. However, off her horse Jamie at times would still find herself overcome with paralyzing fear and debilitating anxiety. Public school was out, as was her ability to participate in many other public activities. This schooling show definitely qualified as a public activity. Yet we were here today because Jamie had asked to come. She felt ready to test her skills in the public arena. I knew she was ready but I also knew that Jamie, not unlike one of the horses that we had brought, might still need a little convincing.
In the trailer I had two of our rescued equines. Jamie would be riding Lily, a TB mare that I had rescued off the race track several years ago and Balou, also a TB that the Humane Society and Sonoma County Change Program had recently come to the aide of. Even though I had taken Lily to shows before, this would be the very first show for Jamie and Lily, as well as a definite first for Balou.
Jamie had been riding Lily for several months and the partnership they had was a good one. As equally high strung as Jamie was, Lily was that and more. Between every horse and rider there needs to be a relationship based on mutual trust, respect, communication and team work. And within that framework both horse and rider need to find the balance. Horses mirror our emotions so if you want a calm horse, you must be a calm rider. As those of us who work with horses can attest, they are the best teachers but we must be willing and able to listen and then react, without over-reacting. And despite Jamie’s sudden silence that told me in so many words that her anxiety had set in, this horse and rider team had made tremendous progress.
Once parked, I encouraged a still silent Jamie to unload the horses as I went to sign in. Upon my return I found Jamie leaning against the trailer her body shaking uncontrollably as tears streamed down her face. Between sobs she apologized stating that she wouldn’t be able to participate in the show. She just couldn’t do it and that was that. No big deal I told her, let’s just get our horses tacked up and we could cruise over to the warm up arena and hang out.
Ever so slowly Jamie proceeded to groom and tack up Lily as I did the same with Balou. Thankfully both horses were handling the crazy and chaotic show environment with ease. Of the two Lily had more experience. Balou, however was very much a newcomer to this scene. Rescued a little over a year ago, Balou was severely underweight and in dire need of immediate attention from a vet and a horse shoer to assist him back to a healthy life. Thankfully and as a direct result of the collaborative efforts of the Humane Society, Sonoma County Change and our program, Balou had a new lease on life and a new role in life, show horse.
Getting Jamie on Lily took some convincing, and once on we made our way ever so slowly to the warm up arena. As I trotted Balou around, I encouraged my still anxiety ridden rider to take deep breaths and follow our lead. As I worked Balou at the canter I encouraged Jamie to do the same with Lily. Utilizing the jumps in the warm up arena with Balou, I soon had Jamie trotting and cantering Lily over them as well. Once warmed up I took Jamie over to the show arena and had her watch as riders one by one rode the course. We would both be up soon so it was time to ask the big question. Are you up for this task? In reply Jamie silently nodded her head, up and down. It was a go.
As it turned out Jamie was more than ready. It was as if Jamie and Lily had been waiting a lifetime for this day to come. Watching the two ride the course as one, taking every jump, every stride in stride evidenced the amazing relationship between horse and rider. Riding with the confidence of a seasoned professional, Jamie and Lily would go on to win both of their jumping classes. Balou too, would prove to be a star, winning both a second and third in his classes. After our last class the announcer shared Balou’s story which had the crowd cheering as we left the arena and Balou’s feet dancing to the beat. It was an overwhelming moment for all of us who had participated in Balou’s recovery.
All in all, it was a great day. For Jamie and Lily getting both to, and into the arena re-enforced the value and importance of the relationship that we have with our equine partners. We must have trust, respect, communication and team work in order to build the much needed confidence and self-esteem that makes what we do with our horses so empowering. Even though going into the show, Jamie momentarily lost her trust and confidence in herself, she never lost it in Lily. And not only did she get her confidence back, but it came back ten-fold because she was able to get to the other side of her fear, making her fearless and ready, willing, and able to do it again. Happy equine endings for all, for in the end it was the greatest day of all! Thank you.