Friday we assemble at 10am in the gym before heading out to the stable. Both Kim and Jenny are coming with us as well as Mark’s physical therapist David. Mark is not going since he is still deemed not yet ready for our outing which is sad. In his place a couple of the younger children will be coming. I sure wish he was coming. I could use his quiet strength. I’m nervous.
We’re taking one of the facilities special vans for my wheelchair and one of the other girls, Melissa. Jem and another younger boy named Jack are able to walk on their own or with walkers. We have packed lunches just like for a school field trip. As we all line up outside, queuing to get onto the van, I think what a bizarre group we must look like to outsiders. Mindful of the possible freak show, I took special care this morning to try and look as much like myself as possible. I had Leah put me in my usual jeans and a sweater. I made sure my boots matched and I curled my hair a bit before pulling into a low pony tail so it would look fancy. I have been working on wheeling myself instead of being pushed and I am determined to be independent in my chair today. Jem has donned a wig for the occasion and she’s moving so well on her leg that it’s almost hard to tell there is anything wrong with her even though she still only has peach fuzz for eye brows and no eyes lashes.
I feel very anxious during the entire trip to the barn. Everyone is asking me questions about the barn and the horses which helps keep my mind off what I am really worried about. What will everyone think of me when they see me like this? What if Missy is there? I’m not sure I can stand seeing her looking gorgeous and gloating over her conquest of Eric. It’s not like I had any claim to Eric, I mean he wasn’t my boyfriend or anything, but somehow I still feel like she’s stolen him.
Pretty soon the rolling green pastures and white fences of Sterling Acres loom into the front windows of the van. Jem, Melissa and Jack are amazed at the size of it and Kim and Jenny point out the groups of grazing horses out in the pasture. David who ended up sitting in the back with the kids reaches out and squeezes my hand. I don’t know him well but I am grateful for the support. I smile and try to point out to the kids and name the horses as we roll slowly up the gravel driveway, tires crunching. I am too distracted by everyone’s questions to note which cars are in the parking lot when we pull in and I feel a little dizzy with the clash of my two worlds coming together. It’s odd that after wanting this so much now suddenly I am afraid. When the van doors are opened, the pungent smell of horses and hay reaches me and I breathe in deeply. Melissa pinches her nose and says “yuck-o” but Jem loudly announces that she doesn’t mind the smell and soon Jack and Melissa are over it and jockeying for position to get out of the van. Unloading is fairly complicated since the drive way is gravel and Kim, Jenny and David have to carry most of us into the concrete floors of the barn. Gravel doesn’t make a graceful run way for wheel chairs and walkers. Jem tries to walk but struggles to balance on the uneven footing. I can tell that the PT in Jenny would love to stop right then and there and work with her on it but there is not the time so Jem agrees to be carried the 15ft into the barn.
Once we are all assembled in the front of the barn, I hear the familiar jingle of the office door bells and the creak and swing of the office door opening and shutting. Mary Anne pops her head around the corner and immediately her eyes sweep the group and find mine. She smiles and greets everyone. My heart is thumping and I almost feel like crying but I’m not sure exactly why.
“Welcome! I assume this is our group from Heartland? So glad you could all come. My name is Mary Anne and I am the owner and head trainer at Sterling Acres. We are an 80 stall boarding facility that emphasizes hunter and jumper style English riding. We have over 75 horses currently on the property and over 100 acres of land. We have three large outdoor rings for riding and one indoor ring that we heat during the winter months. We employ 4 full time trainers and have several part time trainers that work in our summer camp programs. Every year we send riders to the top national shows around the country and we are very proud to have a successful record in those shows. But really what we are is a family owned business that loves taking care of horses and introducing people of all ages to the wonderful relationship between humans and horses and I hope you will all enjoy experiencing that today.”
She beams at the group and everyone smiles back. She has that very can-do attitude that I think the therapists and kids can identify with. We are not strangers to hard work at Sterling Acres or at Heartland.
“Now, have any of you ever been around horses before?” she continues.
Jem’s hand shoots up and before Mary Anne can call on her she says “I rode a pony at the fair once! It was easy! And I fed it a carrot and it didn’t bite me because I held it right!”
Mary Anne smiles and nods “Very good! As you know we won’t be riding today but your carrot experience may come in handy.” She winks at me and I smile. I am pleased to see that everyone’s various handicaps don’t seem to bother her at all. It’s almost as though she doesn’t really see them.
“Well why don’t we begin with a bit of a tour? Then I’ll have one of my more experienced junior riders give you a demonstration on some basic horse care.” I briefly wonder who the “experienced junior” will be but don’t have much time as soon we are moving off down the long isles and I am losing myself in the joy of seeing all my equine friends again. Mary Anne introduces Cupcake, Razzmatazz, Maggie, Autumn, Snow Day, Jimmy and a few other boarders horses before we turn the first corner and begin the row of Missy’s horses. I see Alvaro has one of them, her bay hunter nicknamed Adonis, out in the isle way where he can groom him to a fine sheen. I am a little nervous to see how the horse will handle seeing the wheel chair and hearing the clump sound Jack’s walker makes but he doesn’t seem to mind and is just dozing off enjoying Alvaros’s attention. I see Alvaro’s eyes widen when he recognizes me in the wheel chair and I give him a little wave as our group moves past.
I can feel my excitement building as we round the second corner and come down the third isle of horses. I am already looking for my friend’s white star and wheel straight to him on my own as the others work their way more slowly there. No, there is no huge Disney movie- like moment of recognition when Figment peers over the stall door to see who is outside of it. No big whinny or nicker but he does turn around in his stall and come over to the half door and lean out to see if I have a treat for him. Even from my wheel chair I can reach his soft nose and give him a good pet. He wuffles a bit looking for treats but when he doesn’t find any he stays to enjoy the attention. I am wishing I could stand up and give his big muscular neck a hug like I always have but have to settle myself for scratching his big cheeks and rubbing his forehead when he leans his head down all the way. I feel tears prick in my eyes as I realize how badly I have missed it here and how much I want this part of my life back. Just looking at his familiar face and remembering our peaceful nights together after riding and the hush of the barn calms me. What I wouldn’t give for a therapy session with Figment instead of Dr. Cole. Pretty soon the rest of the group has gathered around and Mary Anne is introducing him and telling the group that he was my main lesson horse. She looks at me tentatively but even tells the group how Figment and I were qualified to ride in a national competition together right before I was hurt. I see the respectful looks of the kids and Mary Anne embellishes a bit by telling them that he’s one of the more difficult horses in the barn to ride and that he’s a thoroughbred and she only allows the best riders to work with him. As she was saying this Jem was reaching out to pet him but when she hears “difficult” she retracts her hand quickly.
“No, no Jem he’s okay. He loves being pet. He was just difficult in that some times he liked jumping a little too much! Sometimes he would want to sort of race over the fences too fast. But he’s an angel to work around. It’s ok, see?” I rub his cheeks more and in response his lower lip pooches out and wiggles. Jem giggles at this and starts petting him again tentatively.
“He’s beautiful Katie – no wonder you miss him! I can’t believe how big he is!”
I am actually thinking the same thing myself! Figment sure does look taller from a wheel chair!
“Katie he sure does seem happy to see you!” Mary Anne cajoles. I know she’s just being kind but I still feel my cheeks pink with happiness and I am beaming and blinking back tiny tears that I hope no one can see.
Melissa and Jack each give a couple pets and then are moving off to look at the rest of the horses in the isle and exclaiming over them. Kim and Jenny bring up the rear and Kim asks if I would mind her snapping a picture of Figment and me. Normally I hate pictures but I’m so happy right now that I turn my wheelchair around so Figment’s head is draping over my shoulder in the picture and I’m grinning like a maniac.
Not wanting to be left too far behind, Kim and I catch up to the rest of the group. The kids are all petting a little shaggy school pony named Magic. Magic is a small Shetland Pony and he’s a gorgeous light cocoa color with a blonde mane and tail. Because it’s winter now his coat is very thick. During show season in the Spring and Summer we keep him clipped and he can be as fancy as any pony in the ring with his flashy coloring. Mary Anne tells our group that he will be our demonstration pony. Looking at him I have to agree – he sure could use a grooming! Mary Anne slips into his stall and halters him and clicks the lead rope on and leads him out of the stall. The kids cluster around wanting to pet his soft furry body. Magic is still busy chewing some hay he had in his mouth and pays them no notice. Pieces of hay are stuck all in his mane and tail and even in his halter. I suppress a giggle as he tries to reach the hay stuck on himself in his piggishness. Mary Anne transfers him into cross ties in the middle of the barn isle which means that he has two leash like ties sort of centering him in the isle and preventing him from moving backwards or forwards though he can move a little bit from side to side.
“Okay, so let’s talk about some of the basics about horses and ponies. Who can tell me what the difference is between a horse and a pony?” She starts out the lesson and immediately the kids are excited – raising their hands to answer the questions and showing surprise or giggling when She points out certain things. Since I already know all this stuff I am parked off to the side of the group just enjoying being in the barn and feeling my heart rate and breathing slow as they always do when I’m there around the horses. I’m beginning to wonder what I was so afraid of – everything is fine. My eyes keep scanning over to Figments stall. He’s no longer standing with his head out in the isle but he’s still facing us and I can watch him peacefully chewing on his hay. I close my eyes and focus on the warm sounds of the horses. The peaceful barn sounds of the horses shuffling in their thick beds of pine shavings, the deep glugging at their water buckets and the warm rhythmic chomping of hay. I feel more content than I have in the almost two months since I left here. How can I give this up? I won’t give this up, I resolve. I open my eyes and see Jem watching me. She gives a knowing smile.
“Okay, so now I’d like to show you how to groom a horse or pony. Grooming is a really important function. It is an important bond between horse and caregiver and allows the caregiver to check the horse over for any injuries or health concerns. The grooming also helps stimulate blood flow to the horse’s skin and that makes their skin healthier and shinier. The brushing will spread the skins natural oils around and that is how horses get such shiny coats. Last but not least cleaning out their feet helps prevent infections and injuries to the sensitive bottoms of their feet. Katie – why don’t you come over here and show everyone how it’s done?” She grins mischievously and adds “I told you all I would have one of our experienced juniors show you how it’s done.” I see Kim, Jenny and David beam at Mary Anne and I know the adults have been planning this.
At first I’m not sure how to move around Magic in my awkward wheel chair. He is a small pony so even seated in the chair I can reach much of him except for his middle back and upper neck if he doesn’t lower his head. She hands me off the tools and I demonstrate for everyone the proper order to use them in. First the curry comb, then the stiff brush, then the soft brush. Then the rag for a final rub down. Even though the day is brisk as it’s almost December now, I can feel myself warming up under the activity. I can also feel how much easier it is now that I have put on some real muscling in my arms from my intense PT. After I demonstrate each one I let the kids come up and try it themselves too. Jack and Jem do fine but Melissa is in a wheel chair like me and at first she struggles to figure out how to approach the pony. Eventually she does it though she is fairly weak and currying is very tiring for her arms. I can see Jenny is excited that Melissa wants to do it so badly. She’s pushing herself much harder than she usually does in her gym PT sessions at Heartland.
Mary Anne finishes up the demonstration by showing how to do the hooves since I cannot reach those and then we are all done and I suddenly realize how hungry I am. It’s after 12 pm and our group heads back to the front of the barn where we have our lunches stored. For lunch Melissa and I eat in our chairs and Jem and Jack sit on tack trunks which are big wooden trunks that riders use to store various items in. They can take these trunks with them to shows when they travel around. Most barns have them all over the place as each rider will have their own trunk. During lunch the kids continue to pepper Mary Anne and I with questions. She tells us that the final part of our visit will be a riding demonstration. Just as she is telling us this, I hear the office door jingle again and there is my friend Lisa! She’s in her riding gear and has a cautious smile on her face. She comes up to our group as we are cleaning up our lunch and immediately squeals “Katie!” and swoops down to give me a big hug.
I can tell Lisa feels a little unsure of how to treat me now that I am in a wheel chair but I immediately start teasing her to put her at ease.
“So you are the big hot shot that is going to do the riding demonstration? These kids are never going to understand leads now!”
She swats at me and grins “well someone has to show them something until you and Figment are back in action and can show them the right way to do things!”
I laugh and she runs off to quickly groom and get Cassanova ready to the demonstration. Riders call putting the saddle and bridle on “tacking up” because all the equipment a horse wears is known as “tack.” I wish I could go and help her like I normally would but I have no idea how I would get that saddle up on tall Cass’s back from my wheel chair. Darn.
Normally for watching riding everyone goes into the observation room but it is up a flight of steps and is just not really handicap accessible. So instead we all gather down at the entrance to the ring. The view isn’t as good but we should be able to see most of the ring. In a few minutes we hear Cass’s hooves clip clopping towards us and Lisa leads him into the ring to begin.
Lisa is a natural teacher. She starts by showing everyone how to mount and then how to ask the horse to move forward and to stop. She also shows how to use the reins and your legs to get them to move sideways. She then demonstrates the three main gaits or speeds: walk, trot and canter. Jem and Melissa are amazed by how fast the canter is and Jack just says “wow! It’s like the Kentucky Derby!” Last Mary Anne has Lisa demonstrate jumping over a few small jumps near the gate and then finally she goes ahead and takes Cass through an entire 2’6” high hunter course. No big deal for Lisa but all the kids are impressed. Jem turns to me and asks “You did that? Wow Katie!”
I can’t help but grin. It’s nice to feel like a hero even though I know as riders go I am nothing that special. We are having a great time but it’s almost 3pm by now and we really have to get back to Heartland. Everyone begins saying their goodbyes. Melissa and Jack are talking animatedly about which horses they would most like to jump and which horses were the coolest. Lisa has left to go cool down Cass and I am deep in conversation with the therapists explaining more on the technicalities of riding because they are very interested. I don’t see her because she comes up behind me but when I see Mary Anne jump up stiffly I know there is only one person that can make her to act that way.
“What is going on? Mary Anne did you forget that we have a private lesson right now?” I turn just in time to see Missy actually tap her watch at her as though she cannot tell time herself.
“Yes, Missy I am aware. I’m just finishing up something here. Where is Raja? It doesn’t seem like you’re ready either…..”
“Alvaro has him all tacked up and we were just waiting for you. I have a schedule to stick to because we need to get through Raja and Adonis today.”
“Alright, Missy bring him on in the ring.” Missy starts to walk past our group when suddenly her eyes lock into me. I feel myself shrink into the wheelchair.
She doesn’t make any comment and just strides past us towards Raja’s stall. Mary Anne raises and eye brow at me and I shrug. How that girls mind works, I will never understand. I’m just grateful to have escaped any scathing comments. Mary Anne gives me a big hug before we leave and I again feel the prick of teras in my eyes. It has been a wonderful but emotionally draining day. I am so happy to have come now but it makes leaving even harder. I wonder if I will ever be able to come back as a rider.
The van ride home is bitter sweet for me. I feel some relief at having gone out into the real world – my old world – as my new self and survived it. So a weight has lifted. On the other hand seeing my old life has reminded me how much work I still have ahead of me if I ever expect to have any of it back. I am more resolved than ever to get as much of my life back as possible. Jem can see the new fire burning in me and she stokes the flames.
“So Katie – we’ve got to make the Therapeutic Riding work don’t we? What if we did a fund raiser? Some of my friends at the hospital have done lemonade stands, swim marathons and bake sales to help raise money for their chemotherapy. I’m sure we could do something like that. Maybe I could sell my art…?”
“Those are good ideas Jem. I’m not sure exactly how much we need. I guess we have to start with figuring that out and then we can brainstorm a business plan to get us there.” This is the adult in me talking. I appreciate Jem’s support more than anything but she’s old enough to understand that this won’t be easy.
“Right! A business plan! You know my Dad is a CPA, he can probably help us! Why didn’t I think of that before?”
“Your Dad is a CPA? When you said he worked at the bank, I guess I really didn’t think that much about exactly what he did there. Good idea! Are they coming this weekend to visit?”
“Yeah, he’ll be here Sunday as usual.” I feel my heart lift up a bit with hope. Kim is up front talking with Jenny who is driving and she hasn’t heard us but David has and I quickly glance over to see if we have his approval. I want him to understand that we aren’t just kids and we can actually try to solve some of our own problems. I’m still yearning for some independence.
“That seems like a good place to start – I’m sure you can find some good fund raising ideas online as well. I think you should talk to Kim about it before you go too far. I’m pretty sure she has some tricks up her sleeve as well! She’s a resourceful woman and I know she really wants this for you both. Frankly after seeing how much is involved with horses, I think it would be a great tool for our entire program.” He lowers his voice and adds “I’ve never seen Melissa and Jack so excited and willing to work hard. It would be great to give other kids something to aspire to as well that is more than just reaching a distance on a gym floor, you know?”
I nod. I really do understand. If I didn’t have horses to motivate me I think I would have given up my first day here. It is mentally hard to keep yourself motivated when progress is so slow and so far from you goal. The work is heart breaking and painful and often very discouraging despite the love and pep talks from the therapists. I do understand that the therapists are probably eager for any motivational tools they can find to help their pupils push past the rigorous mental barriers.
Jem smiles at me conspiratorially and I can tell even though David had closed our think tank session – she is still plotting away. I spend the rest of the trip home brain storming too. When we arrive back at Heartland I realize that I forgot to look for the spot where my accident happened. For some reason I had wanted to do that but now I feel like maybe I ‘m ready to close that chapter and quit thinking about it and that day. It’s time to stop thinking about “what if’s.” I also feel ready to close my heart off to any thoughts about Eric. If he’s really into Missy let him have her. I have more important things to do than pine over a guy I hardly know that clearly is no judge of character.