From Chicken Soup for the Horse Lover's Soul II

A Gambler’s Instinct

To consider constantly the comfort and happiness of another is not a sign of weakness but of strength.

Charles Conrad

A mutual love of horses created an inseparable bond between my father and me. We spent countless hours preparing for horse shows and riding the quiet trails near our house. Horses brought joy into our family, whether it was from a ribbon at the fair or participating in the local apple orchard’s annual fall “train robbery,” where we would race up to the train on horseback and demand fresh-picked apples as ransom. Our horses soon became more like family than pets. Mixed in with the good times were periods of grief and sorrow.

As any horse lover knows, an affectionate nuzzle or a good morning nicker brings happiness and soothes the soul during dark times. This is never more true than when debilitating disease brings pain and suffering to the patient and his or her family. My father’s two-year battle with cancer gave our family a firsthand account of the pain and suffering caused by disease. Throughout his treatments, he could not help but notice the number of young children being treated for cancer and during a three-week stay in an intensive care unit, he made a vow that once he was well again, he would try and bring a bit of happiness to these children’s lives. My father returned home from the hospital more determined than ever to share the joy of horses with children fighting their own battles with cancer.

In the spring, the perfect opportunity presented itself: a family-oriented picnic sponsored by a local community outreach group whose mission was to provide support for children with cancer and their families. Children’s laughter filled the air and sunshine warmed everyone’s mood. My father and I arrived early in the morning with two horses, both five-year-old Quarter Horses, new to the family, but up to the task of giving these youngsters a few moments of freedom and enjoyment. Chip and Gambler had not been on our farm long and could be on the frisky side at times, but both seemed to sense the fragility of their young riders, rose to the occasion and were the perfect mounts.

By the end of the day, a crisp fall breeze was settling and both horses were tired from the day’s activities, having carried between twenty and thirty riders each. As we readied them for the trip home, my father noticed a young boy in a wheelchair off to the side arguing with his parents. Dad had spotted him earlier in the day, but noticed the distance his parents kept between the horses and the child. Quietly, he approached the boy and his parents and reassured them that Gambler, although tall at 16.1-hands, was nothing more than a teddy bear with four long legs that would be gentle with their son.

Tears filled their eyes as they expressed appreciation, but began to explain it was not a fear of the horse but the physical condition of their son that forced them to admire the horses from afar. Gingerly, they pulled back the boy’s blanket to reveal an endless maze of tubes feeding him medication. My father asked them to wait a moment as he rushed over and grabbed Gambler’s reins from my hands. With a soft voice, he led Gambler to the boy’s wheelchair. As he approached, he explained to the little boy that the horse’s name was Gambler, that he really liked children and how Gambler loved pats on the nose. As if Gambler could sense the gravity of the situation, he very carefully dropped his whole head into the boy’s lap and gently let out a contended sigh while the youngster stroked his white blaze.

A smile stretched from ear-to-ear as the boy kissed Gambler good-bye and said thank you. Gambler’s instinctive nuzzle of the young boy soothed the souls of many onlookers who witnessed the exchange that afternoon.

Although we never saw that little boy again, we know that for a brief moment that day he forgot about the invasive tubes and the constant pain from his disease. The memory of his smile is an ongoing source of hope and inspiration for my father who has continued to use his love of horses to benefit children with cancer.

Kathryn Navarra

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