From Chicken Soup for the Horse Lover's Soul II

The Little Horse That Heals

Better to light one small candle than to curse the darkness.

Chinese Proverb

We had just finished unwrapping Christmas gifts on the morning of December 20, 1999, and were ready for our traditional holiday breakfast when I said, “Wait, there is one more gift to see!” December 25th was not only a religious holiday, a world-wide celebration, Santa’s big day. It was also my dad Robert’s birthday. I had gotten up early this morning and secretly headed over to the stable. Hidden on the side of my residential home were my truck and horse trailer. No one knew what was to come.

With my family assembled in anticipation of another surprise, I carefully led my father’s eighty-fourth birthday present into the family room. Red-felt reindeer antlers adorned his head, he sported a handsome green halter and a winter’s growth of hair seemed to add fifty pounds to his 31” tall frame. A stunned silence quickly gave way to squeals of delight and laughter. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house as I handed the lead line to my father and said, “Happy birthday, Dad!” During the past year, Dad had casually mentioned, “Gee, I would sure like to have one of those miniature horses.” This was a significant change . . . this was doable—the last horse he coveted was a Clydesdale!

His name was Rebel, a moniker certainly bestowed as a joke since his personality and temperament would prove to be anything but. I found Rebel just three days before from an ad in the paper. A kind description of the conditions in which I found him would be a puppy mill. When the owner brought Rebel out for me to see, he literally had a live monkey hanging from his neck and a dead-eyed look of unhappiness and toleration. He was completely uncared for. I took him immediately.

I brought Rebel to the stable of a therapeutic riding program for people with special needs where I am a certified riding instructor. At Horses Help, I got Rebel settled in, had our vet check him over and groomed him until the day of his big debut arrived. It was immediately clear that Rebel had the perfect disposition to be a certified therapy horse. There were bigger things in store for this little guy than being the perfect birthday gift.

Soon it became necessary for Rebel to have a real job and we taught him how to pull a cart. At first, the idea of actually working instead of just eating and looking cute didn’t sit well with Rebel, but he eventually took to it easily and joined an eight horse and cart drill team. He now performs all over Arizona at horse shows and fairs in a fifteen-minute program filled with resounding, patriotic music. At Horses Help, Rebel lives among fourteen big horses of all sizes and shapes, and we use him to help children get used to the larger animals by leading and grooming him. Dad comes every Tuesday to visit, delighted to own a horse but have none of the responsibilities of its care.

One of my interests lies in animal-assisted therapy and the elderly, so it wasn’t long before Rebel and I became the only miniature horse Delta Pet Partner therapy team in the entire state of Arizona. In two years, we have visited over twenty care centers for the elderly. Rebel’s expertise turns out to be patients afflicted with Alzheimer’s or dementia. Instinctively, he seems to know that he must spend more time, to wait for a reaction, when he encounters a person with cognitive impairment. Time and time again, he quietly rests his head on a bed or a wheelchair, waiting patiently for a hand to be raised or a voice to be heard, but with someone else, he might allow a quick pat and move on. On one visit to a day-care facility for the elderly, he quickly made his way through the crowd of almost eighty residents. My heart swelled with pride when he hesitated longer with two women, sitting at opposite ends of the room, that were blind and needed more time to “see” with their hands. On another occasion, we visited a woman who was about to die and Rebel gently laid his head near her hand so she could pet him. He somehow knew she needed him in her last few hours of life. We can’t teach this, it is simply in a creature’s heart. It is a gift and every time I watch my little horse bring a smile to a face or a tear to the eye, I am blessed with the most incredible feeling of joy and pride and fulfillment.

No one told Rebel he isn’t the size of a draft horse. If they had, he wouldn’t have believed them anyway. He doesn’t know he was born premature, abandoned by his mother and, at one point in his life, wasn’t very well cared for. From the start, this scrappy little guy just followed his heart as he chased the big horses in the pastures. Rebel still follows his heart as he faithfully clip-clops up the steps, in the elevators and down the halls of hospitals, schools and nursing homes, past noisy respirators to visit his special people. He doesn’t know that horses don’t usually do that, either.

Rebel doesn’t see the Alzheimer’s, the hospital beds, the blindness, the wheelchairs, or the fear in the eyes of those who feel unsafe, just like he doesn’t see size. But he does see the smiles and the joy. Even dressed up in bright red reindeer antlers, he quietly demonstrates what he’s known all along; life is good, people are good. If Rebel could talk, he would probably ask, “What size is positive attitude? How tall is success? How big is love?” This funny little horse doesn’t know or even care. He simply goes about his business in a great big way, gently showing every one he touches that none of us is small and everyone counts.

Another Christmas day found Rebel and me at a care center for the elderly that we frequent. I had Rebel loaded up on the trailer, ready to go when down the sidewalk came a woman frantically pushing her husband in a wheelchair. “Did I miss him? Oh dear, did I miss him?” Her face beheld desperation, disappointment and sadness, even panic. I will never forget that look. Sitting in the wheelchair was a tall man, seemingly unaware of his surroundings, his head cocked to one side and an empty look on his face.

“I was just about to leave. Do you think your husband would like to meet Rebel?” I asked.

“I just don’t know anymore,” she answered, with so much sadness and loss of hope that my heart broke.

“Let me get Rebel out. Let’s try.”

I led Rebel over to this shell of a man. As usual, Rebel put his head on the man’s lap and just waited. Sure enough, up came a hand, reaching weakly for Rebel’s muzzle. Then, the man’s head rose and a slight moan escaped from his lips, “Rebel.” His wife was in awe. It had been a very long time since her husband had responded to anything or anyone. I could visibly see her despair soften as Rebel continued to visit with her husband.

“Thank you,” she said softly, gently stroking her husband’s shoulder, “you and Rebel have given me the best Christmas present ever.”

Leslie A. Paradise with Jan Clare

off the mark

©2003 Mark Parisi. Reprinted by permission of Mark Parisi.

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