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Friday, March 9, 2012

Equine Therapy 101

Right around the end of January, my mom and I sat down and had a brain-storming session. My concussion recovery had stalled. I was incredibly fatigued all the time. The least bit of activity was exhausting. Most quiet pursuits involve the use of the eyes and I was totally maxed out on looking at things. What, we wondered, could help me be just a little bit more active, wouldn't be too taxing on the eyes, and wouldn't be too loud and chaotic? I don't know what made me think of it, but I suggested, "What about learning to ride horses?"

Me on a pony, age 3
I'm a semi-horsey girl. When I was younger I had several Brayer horse models that I played with ("Touch of Class" was my favorite), was an avid reader of Marguerite Henry books and "My Friend Flicka," had a pony-riding party for my sixth birthday, thought there was no more romantic story than "The Black Stallion," and did once have a riding lesson that I convinced my parents to win for me at a silent auction, but other than going on a few tourist trail rides when I had the opportunity, I turned to other more readily available pursuits as I grew up.

My aunt and uncle's horses in Arizona.
A few years ago, my family had a chance to visit some property out in northern Arizona where my aunt and uncle have horses. We were only there for a weekend, but the it was an amazing trip. I love all kinds of western scenery, for one, so I was incredibly happy to feast my eyes on all that erosion, but I also was really excited to see their horses. I found them somewhat intimidating but fascinating. We took a little ride out into the scrub and I was conscious of one) the fact that I didn't know how to ride at all and two) thinking it would be really cool to know how to do it correctly.

We'd gone to the track to watch wiener dog races,
but I was awestruck by the beauty of the horses
But that was just a thought that I stored in the back of my mind and then I got too sick to travel so going back to the ranch for some more time with the horses was out of the question. I'd sort of had horses on the brain since the summer before last, when we went to the racetrack and I was awed by the beauty of the horses. This most recent summer I found horse movies to be about my speed when I'd sufficiently recovered from my concussion to move on from ocean documentaries but was not up yet for regular shows. I was thinking about them a lot after watching the movie "Buck," about Buck Brannaman, the inspiration for the book and movie, "The Horse Whisperer." (I highly recommend it, by the way.) I suppose it was all these things simmering away in the back of my mind that made me think about horses when my mom and I decided I needed something more to do.

To me, aside from the fact that I think horses are fascinating, horses seemed to have several potential benefits: they are quiet and tend to be found in quiet environments, they are spooked by the same things (bright, loud, sudden, shiny) that give me migraines and are therefore are generally not around those things, it would not require intense visual concentration, it would require larger motor movements than I generally make around the house while not being an activity that would raise my heart rate by much, it would be a chance for me to get out of the house and into nature, and if nothing else, it would be a chance for me to pet a BIG animal and I love petting animals! Horses are shown to be highly therapeutic for all kinds of individuals and when I first had the idea, I checked out the local therapeutic riding school, but they have a two year waiting list. I decided that as long as I found a place to take lessons that would be willing to accommodate my need to go slowly (because of fatigue), I did have the cognitive ability to learn outside of a therapeutic program.

Lucky for me, I happen to live in horsey country. There's a big equestrian neighborhood just a few miles to the south of my house and then more to the east. If you have a horse in the Seattle area, chances are it's boarding somewhere within ten miles of my house. With so many stables around, there are lots of places that offer lessons. I did as much research as I could online and decided to make inquiries at a stable virtually across the street from one of my favorite parks. I used to love walking my dog on the trails through the woods back when I was able and the thought that I might get to ride there was appealing. I also was interested in the stable because they offered lessons in Buck Brannaman-style horsemanship and that's the way I want to ride. It took them a while to get back to me, though, and since I was really eager to start, I signed up to take Adult Horsemanship 101 through the Parks Department. The lessons are held at that very same park where I loved to walk my dog; we used to stop to check out the horses and pet the miniature donkey during our walks. I knew they did pony rides for kids, but I had no idea they offered lessons for adults! So with a great deal of excitement (and a measure of trepidation), I went to the western wear store, purchased an expensive pair of non-decorative, bona fide cowboy boots, used a pedometer to help me increase my daily activity around the house to boost my stamina, re-watched "Buck," and prepared to start my horsemanship adventure.

I'm all smiles while grooming Lacey!

I've had two sessions now and I would like to report that I am loving it! There's just two of us in the class, so it's easy to keep up. It turns out that much of my experience with dogs, at least in terms of how you carry yourself, translates well to dealing with horses. For the duration of the class, I'm paired with a ten-year-old mare named Lacey, a placid white-and-buff lady. In the first class, we learned how to approach, halter, and groom our horses. Lacey had been rolling the mud prior to the first class and I had a simply wonderful time brushing and combing her white again. She had a good time, too, relaxing and drowsing in the sun as she enjoyed her grooming. If nothing else comes of it, I know for a fact that I love to groom a horse as much as I love to pet a dog and that a horse has the advantage of being much, much larger!

There's so much to brush!

During our second class, we got into the saddle for the first time. I discovered that the downside of having a very mellow horse is that the horse is not very interested in moving. We were working on learning how to turn the horses (which is not quite as simple as "pull hard on one side"), but in order to practice turns, the horse has to first be moving forward. I ended up practicing my clucks and heel kicks and "walk on" commands far more than my "whoa!" Apparently, I have the makings of a natural horsewoman--my posture in the saddle and around the horse has been praised--though I didn't necessarily feel that way when Lacey was making a concerted effort to not go anywhere!

I'm clucking at Lacey to encourage her to continue moving forward, hence the funny face.
You can see how beautiful the setting is in this picture.

As I spoke of in my last post, I am keenly aware of the opposites of things, the costs as well as the benefits, and when it comes to activity, I usually must endure an equal-but-opposite reaction. Yesterday, I was outside in the spring air, learning the art of convincing a 1,000+ pound grazing animal to do my bidding. Today, I spent most the day in bed snuggling with my dog, exhausted, foggy-headed, and constantly being pecked at by migraines. (I wrote most of this yesterday while still feeling frisky from my riding session.) Therefore, I must, as always, weigh whether what I do is worth the subsequent suffering I endure. So far, when it comes to horses, the answer is yes! Yesterday, I didn't feel sick or disabled or powerless (except when Lacey didn't want to "walk on," but that's different than feeling like a martyr to every gust of wind). I was outside, the sun was shining, and little kids gathered at the fence of the corral from time to time to watch in awe. I love the smell of the horses, of their coats and even the manure, the sight of the green woods and broad lawns of the park, the unexpected joy of seeing the park's enormous resident pig frisking with the caretaker cleaning out its nearby pen, even the pleasure of wearing jeans and boots, an outfit with far different intentions than my daily uniform of soft yoga pants and fleece slipper-socks. And then there's Lacey herself, shifting her weight off of one of her back hooves as she relaxed into the the ministrations of the curry comb I ran over her warm bulk.

The sun is shining, the trees are starting to bloom, and I am sitting on a horse: all is right in the world.

So far it comes down to this: running the comb over Lacey's contours makes me happy. The scent of her makes me happy. Having something to look forward to each week makes me happy. I'd say that my little version of equine therapy is an enormous success.


  1. Oo, Lacey is beautiful! I love buff colored horses. And you look lovely riding her.

  2. Even on the days you can only brush her I think this is wonderful!

  3. Hi C,

    Looks like you are having so much fun :)

    I totally understand the risk/reward thing.

    But I am with you I would rather have a day of fun, pushing myself with my family, or going for a little longer walk or doing a little too much weight training and have days in bed after than not push myself at all.

    We have to have lives or we would go crazy just dragging thru, even though the down days always make us question why we do it to ourselves, :)

    Wishing you well and Lacey looks a beautiful horse :)

    My daughter, who is living at home for a while, just told me she is going to start horse riding again, it wasn't really easy to do that in San Fran :)

    Have a lovely week, cheers, T. :)

  4. Equine therapy is more effective then others and These above riding pics of you are very beautiful.

  5. Horsemanship became a therapy. Equine therapy is now gaining attention among people. Since horses are very emotional animals, they could reflect ones feeling.

    By the way, you look beautiful together with Lacey.