Many people assume that therapeutic horsemanship involves mostly riding, but much of the positive experience can happen without even getting on the horse.
“A little boy came to ride today, and it was his very first time…”
Leslie Kirkland, our executive director and senior instructor, seated herself in her desk chair and began re-telling the story I’d heard earlier in more detail.
“…He has a lot of trouble with new environments, and transitions to new tasks, so he struggled just meeting a lot of people that he had never seen before.”
The first thing he had to do was go into the classroom and try on a helmet. Codi, our new instructor-in-training, related that as soon as he saw it, he backed away.
“That was a very difficult transition for him,” Leslie continued. “The teachers worked with him, and they just let him get familiar with his helmet by holding it, and it being beside him… he could explore his helmet at his own pace. Then he was able to put his helmet on his head.”
One of his teachers then pulled out a phone and turned the camera on.
“They showed it to him as he was putting his helmet on – he could watch himself do it – and everybody praised him a whole lot for what he was doing.
“He was able to put his helmet on, and take it off, and put it on, and take it off pretty comfortably, but he couldn’t buckle it. He couldn’t do this little strap under his chin. So we didn’t really proceed very far with that, until such time that we decided to go out in the arena and meet his horse Zyro for the first time. So we put his helmet on then, and we just could not get him to buckle it.
“He kept showing me; he said, ‘See? It won’t fall off; it won’t fall off,’ and then he tipped his head far enough and it fell off.
“We said, ‘See? You have to buckle your helmet.’
“He did. He buckled his helmet; he led the horse; he had to stop to unbuckle his helmet… and the helmet kind of became his focus, as opposed to the horse. It became his focus, and he struggled with the helmet. But he still would go ahead and pick the rope back up and lead the horse, with his sidewalkers.
“So we finished with that. As he was still in the arena leading, the other kids mounted their horses, came out in the arena mounted, and I said, ‘Would you like to get on your horse?’
“He said, ‘Yes.’
“Over we went to the mount area: he went up the ramp with us, no problem. He called his horse in and in came Zyro, and then… he just could not get his helmet buckled.
“He would put it on, leave it for a bit, take it off, put it on, and then – you couldn’t buckle it for him, for sure – he did not want your hands on that helmet in any shape or form.
“So he’d buckle it. He came forward, and we said, ‘Okay, just pet the horse’s shoulder,’ and he did a little bit of that; and then we would walk back behind the red line – that’s the waiting point – we’d walk back behind that waiting point and then say, ‘Would you like to pet again?’ And he’d come forward and he’d pet a few times, and then I’d ask him to walk back behind the waiting line.
“We tried one time, then, to say, ‘Would you like to get on the horse?’
“So we pet [the horse again]. We had a mounting block: he stepped up on the block, – two steps up on the block – put his hands on the surcingle [a wide leather strap with wooden handles, that sits like a saddle over just the front part of the pad, allowing the child to feel more of the horse’s movement in his seat]… but he just couldn’t put his leg over: he had to get back down. And he wasn’t willing to repeat that.
“So then, he got into his own routine. He had his helmet on his head, not buckled: he’d go to the edge of the mounting ramp, and he’d sit down. And sometimes he’d buckle his helmet; sometimes he wouldn’t – he’d go down the stairs, and walk to the end of the ramp, and come back up.
“And he’d repeat that. And I just let him: he wasn’t leaving the area, so he was safe. I just let him go back down the stairs and come back up.
“He’d go to the edge of the mounting ramp: he’d sit down, either buckle or not buckle; [he’d go] down the stairs, back around to the end of the ramp, and back up. And that just became a little routine for him.
“And it’s almost like, ‘Okay, I’m getting comfortable. I’m doing my routine, and now I’m getting comfortable with this.’”
All the while, Zyro stood patiently waiting, still and quiet – no small feat for a senior horse with aging joints. Few understand the sacrifices these golden-hearted heroes make for a struggling child.
“So at some point during that routine, when he came back up, I said, ‘Would you like to pet the horse?’
“‘Then, please buckle your helmet.’
“There would be a little bit of yes-I-will, no-I-won’t, yes-I-will, no-I-won’t.
“And it was just a struggle for him. It wasn’t like a sensory thing of ‘I can’t stand this on my head’ – maybe the buckle was a sensory thing, I don’t know – but regardless, he had trouble buckling it.”
He was trying to be compliant, but it was difficult for him.
“He did get it buckled at one point, and he left it buckled. I said, ‘Would you like to ride your horse?’”
The answer was “no.”
“– He didn’t say the word ‘no,’ he just did it through his actions. His actions demonstrated that he could not get on that horse.
“Given that he had already led the horse before and had a good experience with that, I asked if he would like to lead the horse again, and he said, ‘yes.’
“Down the stairs he went, took the rope with the leader and sidewalker, and they went out in the arena and participated in the rest of the class – two of them riding, and him leading – and they played “Red Light, Green Light,” and he ended with a great experience. Said goodbye to Zyro, and out he went. – And he took off that helmet!” she winked, chuckling.
Afterward, Leslie spoke with his teachers to get some feedback on how they felt the session had transpired.
“I talked to the teachers about what we did, and they were thrilled: they see, too, [that] the little things are huge things for that boy, and that he overcame a number of huge things – for him to be able to be with a bunch of people; have a helmet that he’s never had to wear before; be around a horse, and, in fact, lead that horse, pet that horse – those were huge accomplishments that we as instructors could see, and they saw, and they were really thrilled.
“They were also very complimentary of the volunteers at The Right Path. ‘You have wonderful volunteers,’ they said.”
Experiences like this occur regularly here at The Right Path, as special-needs children, combat veterans, first responders, and older adults with physical and cognitive challenges become more comfortable with the stabilizing routines of therapeutic horsemanship. We are grateful to our donors, volunteers, and supporters for making such leaps and bounds of progress possible!