97: Walk On

97: Walk On

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Volunteering & Giving Back

Walk On

The best things in life aren’t things.

~Art Buchwald

I drove down this street all the time on my way to and from the grocery store about a half-mile away, but this was the first time I had seen the big, bold, black letters on a white cardboard sign: VOLUNTEERS NEEDED.

I knew what was there: horse stables, a corral, and lots of open land with only a few trees for shade. It took up a huge corner of many acres right across from a big housing development. On my ride home, I caught sight of a girl riding high atop a chestnut-colored mare. The girl’s hair was blowing in the breeze, the horse’s canter gently bouncing her up and down in the saddle.

I love animals and have been privileged to share my life with many dogs and cats. I used to ride horses occasionally as a youngster, but I hadn’t been around horses in years, ever since a horse rubbed me up against a tree. I guess he wanted to scratch his back or something, but it unnerved me when the handler had to come over and pull him away.

Swallowing my fear of horses, I turned left into the long, dusty driveway and drove slowly past a corral where a trainer worked with a beauty of a horse. She held the reins and led the horse around on a long rope, encouraging him to trot, then gallop, and to cool down after exercising.

The pungent smell of horses and hay filled my nostrils as I pulled up to the ramshackle building marked “Office.”

“Hi,” I said when I entered. “I’m inquiring about the volunteers needed.”

“Come on in,” a young woman said. “We need help with our therapeutic riding program.”

“What does that mean?”

Darlene explained the value of a horse as a therapeutic tool to help disabled children and adults. “The natural motion of the horse moves the rider’s pelvis in a way that is similar to walking. This motion assists in strengthening the rider’s muscular and skeletal structure.” She went on to explain that the horses provided emotional and psychological benefits, too. The horses’ kind and gentle natures helped to build a bond with the riders, encouraging self-esteem and confidence.

“We need one person to lead and two people as side walkers for every horse and rider,” Darlene explained. “Without volunteers, we do not ride.”

The colorful brochure I picked up stated that individuals of all ages and most disabilities can be served by therapeutic riding, including those with autism, cerebral palsy, spinal bifida, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, spinal meningitis, Down syndrome, vision and hearing impairments, learning disabilities and mild mental retardation.

“So I wouldn’t have to ride the horse?” That pleased me. Darlene led me out of the office and toward a small outdoor arena. “What would I be doing?”

“See that little girl on the chestnut mare? There’s a leader at the front of the horse, and there are two people, one on each side, with their arms against the flank of the horse and their hands gently holding the little girl’s legs. The side walker is there to assist if the rider slips, shifts in the saddle, if her foot comes out of the stirrup or she needs assistance of any kind.”

“Would I have to be near the back of the horse?”

Darlene looked at me and grinned. “Afraid of what comes out back there?”

“No,” I smiled back. “I just have a little fear of getting kicked.” I didn’t tell her about my run-in with the tree.

“Oh, our horses are extremely tame. We wouldn’t put our clients on them if they weren’t. We have the gentlest horses around.”

“I think I’d like to be a side walker,” I told Darlene when we returned to her office. After working out the details, I signed up to help.

I couldn’t wait to start. The first day, I put on my oldest pair of blue jeans, tennis shoes and a lightweight cotton shirt. Darlene said the sun bears down all day and it gets hot out there, so I stuck a baseball hat on my head. After training, I was ready for my first side walking experience.

Riders come with various degrees of disability. Wednesdays were Angie days. She was a diminutive, dark-haired little girl around nine years old whose mother held her hand tightly as she squirmed and wiggled her way up the mounting ramp. She already had her helmet on. Darlene helped her mount the big rust-colored Quarter Horse, then adjusted the saddle straps and stirrups.

“Are you ready to ride, Angie?” Darlene asked.

“Yes, Miss Darlene.”

“Then tell your horse to walk on.”

“Walk on,” Angie said. She had a sweet, confident smile on her face as her horse began to walk with me on one side and another side walker on the other. The horse leader led us in turns, stops and exercises for Angie, like picking up a colored cone atop a tall pole and putting it on another pole.

Angie’s mother later told me, “I’ve never seen Angie sit still for so long. At first she was afraid of the horse and refused to even stroke him. But the instructors worked with her one step at a time and by the third lesson Angie not only petted the horse, but held her reins proudly as she sat and waited to ride. She’s come a long way.”

And so have I. Volunteering opened my heart up wide. And being around the gentle, sweet, giant horses didn’t make me feel small anymore. It made me feel proud. Proud that I was doing something to help others.

~B.J. Taylor

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