HELPING HOOVES

HELPING HOOVES

From Chicken Soup for the Horse Lover's Soul II

Helping Hooves

When walking through the “valley of shadows,” remember, a shadow is cast by a light.

H.K. Barclay

Watching Auggie ride the big gelding around the ring, his mother is amazed at how far he has come. While other children his age play T-ball or little league soccer, Auggie struggles with everyday tasks like walking down the hall or building a tower with toy blocks. His parents rejoice in small accomplishments—the first time he caught a ball and each new word he learns.

When Auggie was ten months old, his doctors diagnosed himwith delayed development. Children with delayed development fail to reach developmental milestones at an appropriate age. For example, Auggie did not begin walking at the same age as other children and he still has trouble talking.

Auggie’s parents learned about the HELP Center in Austin, Texas—a facility offering therapeutic riding lessons to children. The goal of HELP is to focus on the rider’s abilities, not his disabilities. By working with parents and other professionals, the center provides exercise and motivation to their riders.

When he began riding at the age of two, Auggie could not sit upright on his horse. He frequently tipped forward until his helmet rested on his horse’s neck. Volunteers walked on either side of his horse to keep Auggie in the saddle. He also did not communicate with the volunteers verbally and he got frustrated whenever anyone misunderstood his attempts at communication.

Auggie met Trio at the HELP Center and she was a turning point for him. Linda runs the center where she teaches lessons, feeds the horses and recruits volunteers. She also volunteers with a rescue group, and she found Trio while attending an auction on behalf of the rescue. When Linda first saw Trio, the horse was standing in the corner of the crowded pen. She tried to stay out of the way of the bigger horses but they continually bumped into her as they jostled to get to the small pile of hay on the ground. Trio’s light gray coat was hidden by a layer of caked mud. But beneath the shaggy hair, layers of grime and dull coat, Linda saw a beautiful equine soul. When Trio fixed her dark brown eyes on her, Linda knew this mare needed a special home. The auction began and before long Trio was ushered into the ring. The auctioneer began his chant, but no one wanted the dingy pony. Finally, a rescue volunteer raised her hand. The auctioneer shouted, “SOLD!” and Linda was soon loading Trio into a trailer for the short trip to her new home.

The volunteers at the center fell in love with Trio. They spent hours grooming, petting and bathing her. They fattened her up by feeding her several meals a day. Within weeks, she was transformed into a sleek, gorgeous gray pony who basked in the attention of the volunteers and children at the HELP Center.

Trio’s laid-back personality was perfect, and the staff began testing her suitability for therapy work. They led her through a busy arena where kids were chatting, laughing, crying and even screaming, and Trio carefully followed her leader. Volunteers threw balls over her back and rolled them under her belly. Trio watched the balls but never moved a step. Children tossed balls and plastic rings at Trio’s sides; again, she only watched the children and never even flinched. Trio readily walked up to the mounting block and wheelchair ramp. She negotiated between jump standards and around buckets without taking a wrong step. Volunteers rode her in lessons and she was perfect, stopping when she heard the word “whoa” and keeping her body underneath her rider when the rider was off-balance. She played games like ring-toss and basketball from horseback. Trio was ready to begin therapy work.

Finally, the big day came. As a volunteer groomed and tacked Trio up, Linda spoke to the little gray pony. “Trio today is a big day. You begin helping very special kids. Your first rider is a boy named Auggie. When he first came here he couldn’t talk to us and couldn’t sit upright on his horse. Now he says a few words, laughs and sits up straight when he rides. Take care of Auggie, Trio. This is your new job.” Linda helped Auggie onto Trio and they began the lesson. Auggie and Trio walked around the arena and weaved through buckets with the help of volunteers. Auggie tossed rings into buckets and sat on Trio backwards to throw a basketball into a hoop. During his lesson, one of the riders next door was practicing his jumping. Auggie stopped throwing the ball to watch the jumper and then pointed at the jumper.

“Do you want to ride like that, Auggie?” Linda asked. “Yeah!” was the emphatic reply.

Although the kids at the center do not have the motor skills to ride a jumper, they have their own “jump” that consists of two jump standards with a ground pole. However, to jump the rider must be able to give verbal commands, maintain a modified jump position and stop and steer the horse on his own. Auggie’s instructor thought his impaired motor and verbal skills would keep him from being able to jump with Trio.

Auggie’s instructor explained this to him and he watched her intently. As soon as she was done, Auggie, who had been quiet during his lesson, sat up straighter and told Trio, “Walk on!” in a loud voice. Auggie’s instructor decided to let him steer Trio, and Auggie amazed his mother and the staff when he flawlessly maneuvered Trio through the gate into a small arena that contained a few jumps. He told Trio, “Whoa,” and pulled the reins back to his belly—a move he had never made before.

Auggie’s accomplishments for the day were only just beginning. Still doubtful that Auggie could manage to stay in the modified jump position used by the riders at HELP, his instructor helped him lean forward over Trio’s neck, curl his fingers around the blanket for balance and keep his back straight. The instructor reminded Auggie to look through Trio’s ears instead of down at her neck.

Auggie told Trio, “Walk on. One, two, three, trot. Jump please!” This was quite a mouthful for him, but it came out without a glitch as Trio walked toward the ground pole set up as a jump between two standards. When he came away from the jump, Auggie was grinning from ear to ear!

In the past few years, Auggie’s motor skills, communication and confidence have all improved. That first day he jumped Trio showed everyone exactly how far he had come. Auggie continues to improve, now running around the HELP Center, petting the horses and frequently jumping during his lesson.

While Trio helped Auggie, Auggie also helped Trio. Because of her training at the HELP Center, Trio found a home with children who love her—she’ll never again be a dirty, unwanted, unloved pony.

Jennifer Williams, Ph.D.

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