There is something magical about horses. Just ask any twelve year old girl. For that matter, ask a girl of any age. I remember the summer of my fourteenth year. I spent it biking six miles out to Greylore Farm, a beautiful example of a New England farmhouse owned by a tall, lanky man named Greg. Greg welcomed children to his farm, and children came in droves to help bathe Sweet Pea the lamb, laugh at Tuffy the goat, gape at huge Cuddles the pig and ride the two part-Clydesdale horses, Sparky and Patches. I spent that summer, one of the best of my life, wandering through the fields above the farm on the back of a horse. I breathed in the smell of hay, felt the sunshine on my face, and absorbed the horse's warmth through my blue-jeaned legs.
As with all fourteen year old girls, I grew up. I left my little town in New Hampshire and moved 3000 miles away to San Francisco with my newly earned degree in Physical Therapy. I left my horse dreams behind. Or so I thought.
In the winter of 2004, after practicing physical therapy for almost fifteen years, I was eager to do something new and exciting with my practice. I lived in Shingletown, California; a tiny town just east of Redding and less than fifteen miles west of Lassen Volcanic National Park. I opened a consulting business, working with developmentally disabled adults and children. I struggled to find exciting, unique ways for my clients to exercise. I wanted to see them be more a part of the community in which they lived. So, when I read an article about Hippotherapy I took notice.
The word Hippotherapy comes from the Greek word, Hippo, meaning horse. Hippotherapy is practiced by Physical, Occupational, and Speech therapists who use the horse's movement as a treatment tool to achieve therapeutic goals such as improving strength, balance and mobility. The gait of the horse at a walk has been shown to influence the rider's pelvic movements in a way that closely approaches that needed for human walking. Research shows that hippotherapy is beneficial to many people, especially those with neurological disorders.
The connection between animals and people is well known. Studies demonstrate that merely stroking an animal can lower a person's blood pressure. People live longer if they own a pet. Therapy dogs offer independence to their human partners. I never had a doubt that putting disabled people on the backs of horses would be special. I began to look for a therapeutic riding center in the Redding area.
The upper Sacramento River Valley is horse country. Ranches sprawl in the wide open spaces. Snowcapped mountains provide a scenic backdrop to horses grazing in the fields. Despite this, I was told by everyone I asked that there was no center in the Redding area that provided Hippotherapy.
I was raised by a mother who does not believe in the phrase: That cannot be done. She impressed on me at a very young age. that there was absolutely nothing I couldn't accomplish if I set my mind to it. And so, I plucked a phone book off my counter, opened the yellow pages to "horses" and randomly selected a name.
I have now come to believe that nothing about finding Annie was random. Annie is a tall woman with an easy smile and gentle soul. She ministers to people and horses with her massage therapy practice, and she quickly informed me that I had called the right person.
"I'm helping to start a therapeutic horseback riding program. I'm sure the program director would love to meet you," she said. "Why don't you come to one of our meetings."
I had found Triple Creek Ranch, Inc. and was about to once again discover the magic of horses.
Triple Creek Ranch, Inc. is a nonprofit, volunteer program associated with the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association (www.NARHA.org). In the winter of 2004, it was made up of a small but dedicated group of individuals. It was a program just being birthed.
In September 2004, Triple Creek Ranch offered its pilot program to eight students: seven adults and one child. The night before the first class, I woke in a sweat with my stomach full of knots. Would everything go well? Had I recommended the right kind of mount for each student? I was most concerned about one student whom I had referred.
Darryl is a tall, thin man in his 30's who was born with cerebral palsy and a seizure disorder. I had met Darryl two years before when he moved into the group home where I was providing physical therapy services. Although he had once walked, he was then confined to a wheelchair. Over the last two years, Darryl had made great strides in his motor abilities and was now ready to learn to walk again. I selected him for the horse program because I hoped the unique gait of the horse would facilitate his ability to walk. However, Darryl could also be unpredictable in new situations. Would he be afraid of the horses? Would he not want to ride?
I arrived early that first morning. The horses snorted in the cool air. Mama, the ranch's only mare, lifted her head when I approached and nuzzled me looking for treats. I wrapped an arm around her neck and inhaled. The smell of a horse is like comfort food on a rainy day. I closed my eyes and breathed in the smell of hay, sun warmed mane, leather, and horse sweat. Mama, true to her good nature, snuffled my shoulder. I pulled back and looked into her soft brown eyes.
"Are you ready, Mama?"
She blew through her nose and swished her tail. I took that as a "yes."
When the van carrying Darryl and three other students arrived at the Ranch I was inside the barn.
"Look at that!" Darryl's signature high-pitched voice floated over the grounds. I glanced out to see him pointing at Mama, then he dropped his hands to the wheels of his wheelchair and muscled through the gravel to get to the horse. His face lit up with a smile that made his eyes sparkle. The joy on his face washed away all my fears.
We fit Darryl with a helmet and wheeled his chair up the mounting ramp. Katy, one of our volunteers, led Mama between the ramp and a mounting block. Mama looked relaxed, her ears pricking forward and backward, listening to us talk. My pulse quickened. This was the moment of truth. With the help of a second volunteer, I stood Darryl, and pivoted him to sit on Mama's broad back. She stood unmoving, a perfect seat, while we helped Darryl swing his leg over her back. His smile radiated excitement.
"Walk on," Katy said, and the horse moved forward with Darryl on her back. I walked beside the horse, holding onto Darryl an Annie walked on the other side.
Darryl leaned backwards, unsteady on the bareback pad. He clutched the pad and a look of trepidation crossed his face. I placed a hand along his lower back.
"It's okay, Darryl," I said. "Sit up tall."
My words proved unnecessary. As Mama moved forward, her rhythmic sure gait transmitted itself to Darryl. His pelvis tipped forward slightly, his center of gravity began to match that of the horse, and magically he found his balance.
A smile spread over his face.
"Look at that!" He said.
Tears sprang to my eyes. Darryl was riding a horse!
Darryl rode for ten minutes that first day, a long time for someone who has spent most of the last two years sitting in a wheelchair. We knew he was tired when Mama stopped walking and refused to continue despite the prompting of her leader. Several weeks later, she again demonstrated her incredible connection to Darryl when she refused to walk on several seconds before Darryl suffered a seizure while on her back. Her sense that something was wrong allowed us to safely dismount Darryl to the ground and attend to his medical needs.
Darryl was not the only participant in our pilot program. Clarissa also found the joy of movement on Mama's back. Jon, afraid to ride, discovered acceptance from the ground when he made friends with Sage. "He loves me," he said with a grin, when Sage nibbled at his fingers looking for a carrot. Darlene, who had ridden horses as a child, found freedom in movement once again on the back of Dillon. The stories go on and on.
The pilot program ended in October. Triple Creek Ranch, Inc. will open its doors full-time in the spring of 2005.
Recently, I was out at the ranch to meet with Carla, the program's director. As I turned into the gravel driveway, I saw Mama and the rest of the herd out in the pasture. A cold December breeze ruffled their manes and clouds skittered across the sky. Steam from their warm breath wreathed their heads while ground fog shrouded their legs. Then, Mama tossed her head and galloped away from the herd. The rest of the horses hesitated but for a second, then followed her. The thunder of their hooves echoed back to me across the pasture as they disappeared into the woods like ghosts. I pulled my coat tighter around my shoulders and thought, there is something magical about horses.