HORSE THERAPY 101

I've driven by the equestrian center near my house for seven years now. And during the last four years I began to notice the white horse that stood by himself in the small turnout, on the west side of a small barn. I wondered about him. I wondered what his story was. For years! And then I decided to ask. To make a move.

I've had horses in my life since I was very young. I learned to ride on my grandparents' dairy farm in Illinois at about five years old. Horses were the main focus of my life when I lived in California. I taught them to jump and barrel race. Like many young girls, I was obsessed with them. These "mutt" horses were not barrel racers or jumpers, but I pretended they were, and thankfully they played along. I rode in horse shows and in the grand entry of the local rodeo. I rode them in never-ending fields of grass and along creeks. I braided flowers into their manes. They were my best friends. But a sudden move to Colorado meant losing those dear animals. I was lost without them. Horses came and went throughout my years in high school and college. I taught riding at a camp in southern New Mexico and rode the ranch horses in Santa Fe.

But after college I started a career and then a family, and those needs came first, so there wasn't room for horses in my life. I rode my friend's horses from time to time, but it just wasn't enough. I needed them. I missed them terribly. And then came two bouts of cancer and all the trauma that ensued. The after-effects of the surgeries and the resulting emotional garbage left me reeling. And in the meantime I kept driving by that horse.

Finally, just two months ago, I sent an email to the equestrian center telling them my story—all of it—and asked if I could come visit the white horse. Just hang out and chat over carrots. To my delight, the owner of the center replied a few days later and asked me to meet her at the barn. We talked that day for nearly two hours. She "got" me and understood my needs. And I learned that she is also a chaplain at a local hospital. She encouraged me to come by the center and visit, and that's where I have been for the past two months. 

And this past Saturday another opportunity came out of the universe. The barn manager texted me and asked if I'd like to take on some feeding/turnout shifts at the barn. Her text ended with: "and it's a paid job." PAID? That's just icing on the cake! Of course I said yes, without even thinking of my time needs for physical therapies, and Plus, and my life in general. Just....YES!

So, I've taken on three rotating shifts that entail leading approximately 25 horses to their stalls in the evenings, feeding, blanketing and /or unblanketing, memorizing which horse is which and which halter (hanging on the fences) belong to which. My body, still sore from the after-effects of the surgeries and therapies, is now lifting bales of hay, and twisting and turning, and leading very large animals over ice and snow and mud. My fingers are in beet pulp, my boots trash my truck, and my clothes smell like horse, and that's all OK with me. Each shift takes about three hours of non-stop work and about six miles of walking. It takes an eye for detail: are all the gates locked, is the water frozen, are the horses acting ok, are the right lights on. It also takes me a few minutes longer than it probably should. I take time to talk to each one. I pat each and every one. I say goodnight when I close their stalls. We talk.

The beauty of all this is twofold for me. First, I took a chance. I reached out. I went out of my comfort zone to work my body again. Despite still having rough days, I got out of my usual environment. I am mixing things up.

Second, during those three-hour shifts I never think about anything else except hay and grain and halters and horses. There is no room for thoughts of cancer or lymphedema or sadness or trauma. It takes me away.

I was struggling with a blanket on a sweet bay named Bubba this week, and he stood there patiently. I had already put his hay in his stall—and he was hungry—yet he just stood there, in the turnout, and waited for me to get my act together with his blanket. And then, as I got the last buckle secured, and as I apologized to him profusely, he turned his head towards me, closed his eyes, and nuzzled me in the chest. 

And that, dear friends, is worth every ache and pain. It's worth every bad day, every daily struggle, every doubt.

My heartfelt thanks go out to Becky and Tiffany at Carlisle Equestrian Center for their welcome and their support...and to Bubba, and Lenny, and Gus, and Phoenix, and Cimm, and Scarlett, and Kat, and Dazee, and Molly, etc., etc. You guys all rock my world.