Heather Brooks earned both her undergraduate
and graduate degrees from Portland State
University. She lives and writes in the Rose City,
while completing an internship at Incight.
When you have cerebral palsy, your body ages faster. Comes with the territory.
But that doesn’t mean that the loss of abilities you once had isn’t hard to take.
It started as just a form of physical therapy, but as I grew up, horseback riding and everything to do with horses became a passion of mine. I rode for the last time when I was 12.
And then I got older, and bigger, and my body stiffened. I stopped doing therapy, and, I confess, generally neglected myself for years. By the time, about a year ago, that I decided I wanted to ride again, my hips were shot. They were nearly out of joint. An orthopedist told me I’d probably never ride again.
That was a week before my 29th birthday, and it was a blow. I cried like a five-year-old, complete with loud wails and a drippy nose. I promised myself I would ride again. Gradually I calmed, and the little voice in my head decided it was time to have a logical conversation.
“Riding isn’t everything,” it said. “It’s only a small part of working with horses. You’ve got to have a good ground rapport with any horse before you even dream of hopping on its back. You have to study its body language. You do that by watching the whole horse. And everybody knows you can’t see the whole of a horse when you sit on it!”
Right through my tears, I burst out laughing. “Of course!” I said out loud to my empty apartment.
The little voice continued. “You sit on a horse, honey, and you can’t see his emotions in his eyes, and you may not be able to feel through the bit the tightening of the mouth that could mean he’s angry or frightened. Remember Titan.”
How could I forget him? Titan is my friend Brandon’s quarter horse, a mighty gelding, huge for his breed, and a brilliant red chestnut color. Titan is only eight, but already he’s had a rough life. Brandon rescued him from a neglectful situation, and was the only human Titan liked.
Until I came along.
“He’s feisty,” Brandon warned, before he introduced us.
“So am I,” I countered.
As Brandon led Titan toward me, I could actually watch his pace slow. I saw that proud neck bend in submission, and the long lashes sweep down over brown eyes that had suddenly softened. The big ears canted toward me, a sign of respect, and stayed that way while he grazed a little. Then he turned his attention to my chair, on which he began to chew, while I had a laugh attack.
After a few minutes of chewing, sniffing, rubbing, and other sensory explorations of my machine, he sighed, accepting my equipment as part of the package. He blew comfortingly into my hair, and stood perfectly at peace as I talked to him and stroked his neck and flanks. He didn’t spook when I pulled my chair around in front of him, and right up under his chin. Brandon’s girlfriend, Jaquie, took a picture of this, and it worried my poor elderly mother to pieces. “Eee! You’re close to him!” she fretted when she saw the photo.
“Of course I am. That’s why Brandon and Jaquie brought me there. So I could see horses and get close enough to touch them. You forget, I’m not afraid of horses.”
“I would be so afraid!” groaned Mom, wide-eyed. “I can’t understand why you’re not. They’re so big!”
My older sister finds it “hilarious” that I’m not scared. I had to remind them both that I’d been around horses periodically since I started riding therapy at age four.
Not long after my visit, Jaquie told me that Titan had bucked off his latest rider, and this wasn’t an isolated incident. Part of me couldn’t believe that the gentle giant who’d nuzzled and “kissed” me with his soft nose was a bucker. But then I thought of Titan’s past, and his view of the human race as a whole.
And then I wondered about the rider. Had she taken the time to build a ground rapport with Titan? Had she read his mood in his eyes, the tension of his mouth, the angle of his ears, or the position of his legs? Did she run her hands over his glossy coat to feel whether his muscles quivered with anxiety? Had she talked to him so he’d come to recognize her voice, or given him a minute to nuzzle her hair and acclimate to her scent? Had she approached him quietly but confidently, letting him know she neither feared, nor meant to harm, him? I didn’t judge her, but I wondered about these things.
I thought of all of this as I sat in my room after that crying spell. I realized that if I had simply gone for a ride on Titan, I wouldn’t have established a rapport with him. I wouldn’t have won his trust; he might have thrown me sky-high, and left me in even greater need of a wheelchair!