Saturday, November 17, 2012

Memoirs: A Therapy Horse for a Horse Girl

As Thanksgiving approaches, I have decided that it is time to publish this memoir; I wrote this story almost one year ago.  For those of you who appreciate a disclaimer, this story includes personal loss, but also friendship, love, and gratitude.  I hope that you remember the special people and animals in your life during this week of Thanksgiving.


I became a NARHA (North American Riding for the Handicapped Association) certified therapeutic riding instructor in May 2007.  This was a national certification which took me about a year and a half to complete.  There were two online courses with cumulative tests, a three-day workshop, a minimum of 25 fieldwork hours, a riding test, and a lesson test which included submitted lesson plans and teaching a pair of therapeutic students in front of two evaluators.  I found the certification experience to be both challenging and exciting.  I take a great deal of pride in this accomplishment.

In 2011, NARHA was changed to PATH International (Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International), which means that I am now internationally certified.  Wow.  I cannot help feeling a little unworthy!  The organization went global, because there were so many countries interested in joining NARHA. 

There were several reasons why I was inspired to pursue this certification and many of them had to do with the amazing people whom I met when I began volunteering at a local therapeutic riding farm.  I had always felt that horses were inherently therapeutic and that my desire to be around them so much was, in many ways, my own personal therapy.

Teen angst getting you down?  Try horses.
Need to build confidence and feel good about yourself?  Try horses.
Want the motivation to work hard at school or work?  Try horses.
Seriously.  This is no secret.
Horses are amazing creatures and this is not even the tip of the iceberg.

Pursuing a certification that allowed me to work with horses professionally and share in these wonderful animals with my students was a natural progression.  I had always wanted a career with horses, but never had the means to "go pro".  NARHA was my way of making it happen.  Of course, when I watched horses touch the lives of others over and over again, I received much more in return than I ever bargained for and much more than just a part-time job with horses.

This story is about my therapeutic horse.  I did not know that I needed one.  Or at least, I was not about to admit that I did.  I was physically and mentally able, but emotionally damaged.  I lost my only sister in March of 2004, just a few days after her 21st birthday.  I married my husband in September of the same year and we moved to our new home together.  I was eternally grateful for his support in this difficult time, but I was not suffering from a fixable problem.  The loss of a sibling is something that one must learn to live with and believe me, more than eight years later, it is never far from my mind. 

By January of 2005, I started looking for a place to ride.  I was about to enter graduate school and did not have money for a horse or even lessons, but you know how it is.  I needed horses.  I temporarily picked up a free lease at a nearby farm, which was an experience worthy of its own story, and then discovered the local therapeutic riding stable.  My riding experience was immediately noted and I became an official exercise rider for the program.  I could not believe my good fortune.  I was allowed to ride any horse in the barn, any day or time that I wanted as long as they were not in a lesson, and completely for free.  This in and of itself was an amazing gift and I was not about to look a gift horse in the mouth.

Despite my enthusiasm and gratitude, my first ride on a therapeutic horse was disappointing.  I was given a dull, brown, 20 year-old quarter horse with a muddied blaze and an uncomfortable, all-purpose saddle.  I was also handed a crop with no questions asked.  The horse was in good condition and solid at 15.1 hands, but my butt had been spoiled by warmblood mares and expensive dressage saddles.  My last ride before I was married and moved away was on Harry, the beautiful Haflinger stallion.  Now I was riding an extremely unexciting, untalented, lazy quarter horse that looked more like a mutt than a quarter horse.  I tried to banish my prejudgments and enjoy the ride, because any horse is better than no horse, but my positive attitude started to waver as soon as I swung my leg over and legged on my new mount. 

Or maybe it would be more accurate to write "mounts".  I literally felt like I was riding two horses.  One in front of me and one behind me.  I was suspended in a sling between them and they did not always feel like they were traveling in the same direction.  I knew enough not to try and force this horse on the bit, but I did try to give him some guidance toward straightness.  In the back of my mind, I imagined riding half-pass on my trainer's Hanoverian mare and I silently worried that those days were gone forever.

When I moved on to canter, I was happy to see that the brown horse
a) could canter,
b) could pick up the correct lead, and
c) felt less like two horses.

I took advantage of his improved forwardness, and asked him to lengthen his stride.  I was surprised to discover that the brown horse had a nice, rocking canter.  Was it my imagination, or was this old fellow lifting his back?  The director of the program was watching my first ride and became worried that the brown horse was taking off (I guess few people cantered him past an ambling lope), so she rather abruptly asked me to slow him down.  The immediacy of her request triggered my dressage lesson reflexes and I engaged my core and half-halted without thinking about who I was riding.  The brown horse, whom I clearly had not given enough credit, shortened his canter and then transitioned to a slow, collected lope for the remainder of the long side.  I did not think this a big deal, but the feat earned me immediate status as a "good rider" and some kind of barn fame, as people would meet me and ask,

"Are you the one riding Skippy?"

That was his name: Skippy.  Apparently, many people avoided exercising him, because he had the strong will of a lazy horse, the gumption to turn buckaroo if a bee was in his bonnet, and the uncanny ability to run completely sideways on the trail.  That last one was seriously impressive.  I have never seen anything like it before or since.  Skippy was also notoriously rigid and stiff, like a board.  He never really felt that way to me though.  My years of dressage training has served me well.  I knew how to encourage with my inside leg while opening the inside rein and supporting with the outside rein.  When I did this, Skippy obediently wrapped his body around my inside leg.  Before long, we were riding three loop serpentines at the trot and canter with admirable changes of bend and a frame that was almost worthy of a dressage horse.  As he learned to reach from his shoulders and shift his weight off his forehand, his weird sideways running on the trail even melted away.  Suddenly, Skippy was on everyone's dance card.  Who says you cannot teach an old horse new tricks?  I certainly enjoyed the opportunity to do so.

I received positive feedback from his handlers and sometimes I passed up a ride to lead him in the therapeutic lessons.  Despite the hard time that he could give his able-bodied exercise riders, Skippy was always gentle and slow for his therapeutic students.  His gentleness was now accompanied by a greater motivation to move forward (This is even important for therapeutic horses!) and independent riders were able to ride him with less assistance.  There was even talk that "Skippy was less nippy."  All good news for a therapeutic riding horse and very rewarding for his unofficial trainer.  I was humbled by how many people took the time to express their gratitude for my work with Skippy.  Here, I thought that I was just riding him, because I wanted to ride.  I was ashamed when I remembered how unimpressed I had been with him on our first encounter.  I would admit to no one, that I once thought Skippy was anything less than a truly special horse.  His dull, brown coat had taken on a glossy, chocolate sheen.  Skippy was my chocolate horse, no longer just a brown horse, and now I had to wait in line to ride him, but I did not mind.  Every great ride that someone else had on him, felt like a personal accomplishment, and when I passed him in the aisle, I stroked his neck and looked into his big soft eye.

Skippy, the chocolate horse
"Are you being a good boy today, Skippy?"

He would nose my hand or blink at me, staring right into me, as if to say, "I am, Friend."  Working horses do not always have a special person the way pet horses do.  I know physically that Skippy benefited from the training time we shared together, but emotionally, I think that he just needed a new person, someone who did not know him or his wily ways, someone who also needed a friend in him.  Did I help Skippy, or was he just doing his job of therapy horse by helping me?  I guess that I will never really know and honestly, the truth would not change the outcome.  Skippy made me feel better and he gave me a job to do.  Skippy was a therapeutic horse who needed fixing and I was horse girl who needed the silent comfort and companionship that only an animal can offer.

Unfortunately, my time was Skippy was very limited.  He passed away in the summer of 2005, but like a good friend, he allowed me to say good-bye first.  It was a Tuesday, one of our usual riding days, and he was lying in his paddock when I arrived at the barn.  Although not in noticeable distress or pain, he was unable to stand and could only prop himself up with his front legs.  I hugged his neck and cried into his mane.  I thanked him for the many hours we had spent together.  I did not want him to go, but on some level, I realized that this was part of his lesson.  Skippy showed me that I was strong enough to love and lose and keep on going to love again.  He also showed me a whole new aspect of the relationship between horse and man.  Riding and working with him was so worthwhile even if he was far from a dressage star, but our partnership was not just about training.  In many ways, he taught me how to just sit on a horse again.  Just me and the horse.  Simple and happy.  He went to sleep with my fingers running through his chocolate mane.

Thank you, Skippy.  You were one special therapy horse.


  1. This is an amazing story , Val. Thanks for sharing Skippy, and your journey together, with us.

  2. I am trying to visualize Skippy cantering sideways down the trail, that must've been a sight to see. He sounds like he was a really nice guy. Maybe just a little misunderstood.

    Earning your certification is truly an accomplishment to be proud of.

    Loss is such a difficult thing to try to understand, I am so sorry about your sister.

    1. Thank you, Mary.

      Most people in general conversation assume that I am too young to have experienced the loss of an immediate family member. This can make for awkward conversations, say at work for example, and I usually find it easier to just pretend that I fit in with the assumption.

      Skippy could literally canter completely sideways, perpendicular to the trail. I would not have believed it if I had not experienced it myself! Once he figured out how to lengthen his stride and trusted that I was not going to hold him back, the behavior disappeared. He was delightfully smooth to ride, even sideways. ;)

  3. Oh Val. I have two sisters and the thought of loosing them... You are an amazing person to get through that. Your husband is amazing to help you through that and Skippy was just the horse you needed.

    I wish I could give you a big hug right now. This post is one of your most touching yet.

    1. Thanks, Lisa.

      Tragic personal information is difficult to share with others, especially in person, which makes it even more isolating. I felt that Skippy's story was an effective means of doing so and appropriate for a horse-themed blog. Hug received!

      After all these years, Skippy is still doing his job. :)

  4. What a touching post Val. (needs a tissue alert!)

    Thanks for sharing Skippy's story. (((♡♡♡)))

    1. I tried to warn you in the beginning...

      Thank you for reading!

  5. What a beautiful story. Thank you so much for sharing.

  6. Aw such a special story to have! I think we all have our "therapy horses"--they seem to come into our lives at just the right time.

    1. Yes. And I did not even realize that Skippy had been there when I needed him until later. I just wanted to ride. Riding has always been my #1 coping strategy for life.

  7. It's always devastating to bear the loss of a family member who was taken from us so young. I'm glad that you and Skippy found each other at a time when you needed him. It does sound like he loved you, he was a special horse.

    1. As always, you know just want to say.
      Thank you.

  8. What a wonderful story. I know exactly what you mean about horses curing all ills. If it weren't for the wonderful arabian I had growing up I would be a completely different person now- and not in a good way.


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