“Okay, let’s see, I need to groom Harry and Blueberry, put out the western saddle and blue-green reins for Blueberry, and the Passier saddle with child’s stirrups and rainbow reins for Spirit, and….and I am to lead Blueberry for his first rider…got it.” So might begin a morning for me as a Hoofbeats volunteer. Hoofbeats Therapeutic Riding Center, located on the grounds of the Virginia Horse Center here in Lexington, provides recreational therapeutic horseback riding for people of all ages with physical or mental disabilities. Most of my involvement happens during the lessons in the riding ring, where I serve either as a “horse leader” (one who leads the horse for a rider incapable of controlling the horse unassisted), or as a “sidewalker” (one who walks at the horse’s side to assist the rider in carrying out the instructor’s directions; sidewalkers may also provide added security by bracing a rider’s leg.) For capable riders who have mastered the basic skills sufficiently to ride independently, I might still be needed in the ring, but as a “spotter”, readily at hand, but prepared to interfere only in an emergency.
Riding lessons during the Hoofbeats season, April to October of each year, involve participants in a variety of activities on horseback designed to help them develop physical strength, and improve balance and coordination. For those with behavioral, or emotional issues, therapeutic horseback riding may work to build self-confidence and self-esteem, and may contribute to improving communication and social skills. For some special needs riders, improving the ability to focus on a task, or to process instructions appropriately, is the most beneficial aspect of the program. For some though, the greatest benefit derives from the special relationship they develop with their large, fuzzy, warm, non-judgmental partners. There is a remarkable variety of ways in which therapy horses make a difference in the lives of people with special needs.
Lesson activities may include games such as “Red Light, Green Light” (an exercise in “whoa and “walk on”), or Hoofbeats-style races (i.e. at the walk), such as “barrel racing” or “weaving poles” (for which steering is obviously key.) Riders also develop basic skills in horsemanship by perfecting simple dressage routines at the walk, and for some at the trot as well. Sometimes groups of three or four riders perform set routines to music, something participants find especially enjoyable if wearing costumes is part of the deal! As a break from disciplined ring work, the instructor and volunteers sometimes lead riders on short trail rides, making use of the Horse Center’s wonderful system of woodsy, hilly trails (sheer pleasure for the riders, but a bit wearing on those of us leading their mounts as we must cover the distance on foot!)
If I’m lucky, in the course of a morning at the barn I might actually get to ride a horse, but most of my Hoofbeats hours are spent on my own two feet. Lessons happen in all weather, from chilly drizzle (picture mud-splattered slickers and mushy footing), to scorching summer heat (think sunburn, kicked-up dust, and biting insects!) But for me as a horse leader, there’s also an underlying level of stress that can wear me down far more than any physical discomfort. For the duration of any riding lesson, I hold in my hands the welfare of a handicapped rider atop a 1000-pound animal I am able to control only because the horse is willing that I do so. Hoofbeats horses are very well mannered, experienced, and carefully trained, but each is still a horse with a horse’s instinct to survive perceived danger. Once in a while something will scare my rider’s mount, and when that happens I need to react quickly to halt and calm the horse. Although such incidents are rare, any time I have a rider in the saddle I can not afford to let down my guard.
On the other hand, working as a Hoofbeats volunteer provides rewarding moments that are beyond price. It’s heartwarming to witness a handicapped rider’s delight in her new sense of empowerment, when she discovers she too can ride independently because she has mastered guiding the horse by holding both reins in her one good hand. Admittedly by the end of the morning’s last lesson I’m ready for a break. But I have to say that all my weariness and discomfort melts out of existence when I catch the wonderful smile on that last rider’s face as she leans forward in the saddle to hug her pony.