From Chicken Soup for the Horse Lover's Soul II

A Bridge Beyond

I am not a phoenix yet, but here among the ashes, it may be that the pain is chiefly that of new wings trying to push through.

May Sarton

Feeling giddy like three green buckaroos on their first day of a cattle drive, my two children and I were standing next to the pasture gate waiting to meet Dodger for the first time. Weeks earlier, my husband and I had purchased this Mustang based only on his description. The ranch owner was sure that the fifteen-year-old Mustang, who had been “gathered” by the Bureau of Land Management eleven years earlier, would work out well for us. When my ten-year-old son Daniel heard that the new horse was a Mustang, he made his intentions clear. The new horse had to belong to him.

Many things in Daniel’s short life have presented challenges. Because he is autistic, what others take for granted Daniel struggles to achieve or simply abandons. Just a few months prior, a lesson horse ran away with Daniel at a full gallop during one of his earliest riding lessons. He suffered little physical injury in spite of being hurled into the pipe corral fencing at the arena. The injuries to his confidence, however, were devastating.

Something about the possibility of having a Mustang as his own pony rekindled a spark, a seemingly dead ember, in Daniel’s heart. Little did I know this match was more than the romanticized whim of a ten-year-old boy. If their introductory meeting was any indication, Dodger had similar designs on Daniel.

Observing the newest member of our family from a distance, Dodger’s posture was reminiscent of bygone days of the Wild West and the struggle for survival. Our sorrel geld- ing stood rigid, tense and wide-eyed. The owner explained that this horse was unwilling for a human to approach and halter him without the benefit of a grain bucket. The carrots we had so eagerly brought with us would be wasted, he explained, as Dodger wouldn’t take food from any human’s hand. Surely, this wasn’t a horse that would be right for our family? How can a horse with “issues” possibly be a good match for a boy like our Daniel?

As the adults droned on, not privy to the warnings given by Dodger’s owner, Daniel silently slipped out to the pasture, halter in hand, introduced himself to his new friend and triumphantly led him over to meet us. Later that day, Dodger relished a carrot Daniel offered to him. An unlikely bridge was forming, linking the world of a formerly abused Mustang pony with that of a socially challenged ten-year-old boy.

Dodger came home to us a month later. As we worked with him, we noticed that he drew inside of himself. It was clear that his survival mechanisms included disassociating, most likely due to the harsh handling he had previously experienced. Occasionally, as if to confirm the story told by his physical scars, Dodger would tremble seemingly convinced he would be beaten or even killed.

Early on, only Daniel could approach Dodger without causing this emotional shut down. Dodger welcomed Daniel into his world with utter abandon. Content to brush his pony or to tenderly care for his hoofs without the benefits of halter and lead rope, the two partners enjoyed one another’s company down in the pasture. Sometimes, Dodger followed Daniel around the forested hillside pasture seeming to refuse to let go of the comfort and camaraderie he garnered from the presence of his special boy.

Dodger trusted humans again, a little at a time. Because of this Mustang, Daniel began to see that he had something special to offer others. The little pony with intuition and insight quickly won a place in our hearts and our home forever.

Recently, just after school let out for summer break, Daniel made the rare announcement that he would like to ride. Still not eager to venture beyond the corral at home, Daniel trusts only Dodger to carry him. On a mild June morning, we headed down to the pasture where Dodger’s shrill whinny greeted us. Poking over the gate to welcome us in a wet nuzzle, Dodger’s Roman nose slopes nobly downward to a severe and sudden indentation, irrefutable evidence of the handling he received in the past. The physical scars on both sides of our Mustang’s face betray the truth about his previous life. But in spite of what came before, he stood at the gate eager to give the gift of himself, a priceless treasure. The significance of this is never lost on us.

Helmeted and ready to ride, my son haltered his equine friend as he had many times in the previous two and a half years. Content with the halter and a loop rein as their only tack, they prefer riding bareback to the constraints of a saddle. Realizing that I left the clip-on rein up at the trailer, I assured Daniel I would be right back with the reins so he could ride. A minute or two later I came down the hill toward the corral and spied Daniel sitting astride Dodger, negotiating serpentines, figure eights and circles in the corral just like pros—with only a lead rope in one of Daniel’s hands attached to his partner’s halter. Daniel grinned ear-toear as the two of them promenaded around the corral, as a true natural horseman and his partner should.

Moments spent forging the bond between horse and boy were too precious to waste waiting for my return. Daniel had climbed on to the feeding trough (our makeshift mounting block) and Dodger had sided-up, inviting Daniel to join him for a ride. Unwilling to refuse so gracious an invitation, my son had hopped aboard.

The lightness and softness with which Dodger now responded to Daniel’s un-schooled cues took my breath away. Together they had found a safe place for both of them. Daniel and Dodger’s ride lasted perhaps ten minutes, but the effects continue to defy all the confidence-shaking experiences each of them endured before their paths joined.

Daniel violated an immutable rule in our home—that no one mounts a horse without an adult present. But given that there was a larger, more absolute law overriding any rules that I might attempt to instill, I chose not to rebuke him. All things had come together in an instant: Daniel’s confidence, the invitation of his pony, even the helmet perched upon Daniel’s head. It was a moment like the day we first met Dodger—a moment that was meant to be.

Having journeyed a great distance to be such a willing, solicitous partner to a young autistic boy, Dodger has carried all of us so far. Because of this unique Mustang, my son changed forever, infused with a confidence provided only by a special relationship of which so many of us who love horses can only dream.

Heidi Bylsma

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