When I am on my horse I can feel each breath she takes, and each stride she makes as we enter the arena. I feel at home, as though I can do anything, instead of the limitations I normally encounter and have to push hard to overcome.
The minute she picks up the first stride of a canter, I seem to stop thinking. Everything is so natural, so free. The horse and I become one as the arena flashes past my eyes.
I became involved in therapeutic horseback riding several years ago to help overcome my physical disabilities and strengthen my leg muscles.
I suffered brain damage at birth, and before I started riding I had great difficulty balancing when I walked. My gait had no rhythm and I dragged my feet in an awkward manner.
When I learned to ride, I had to work hard to develop my leg muscles to control the horse – this is of primary importance for any rider, but especially for one involved in dressage competitions, as I now am.
Because I enjoyed every riding class so much, I tried harder than ever to concentrate on this control. Now, several years later and at age 16, I can walk long distances at a faster-than-average speed, usually without dragging either foot noticeably or losing my balance. Yes, my gait is still ungainly. But it no longer seems like a handicap to me – just a way of walking that is different than other people’s.
But it is the side benefits I have received from riding that most people don’t realize – and I usually skip describing those when I talk about my activities with horses.
The fact is, riding has also enhanced my emotional growth well beyond my years, and it has affected my social life as well.
I used to have a great deal of anger about my physical limitations. I frequently lashed out at others who did not deserve it, and was often in trouble at school for fighting with others, or attempting to, just to release my anger.
Without really meaning to, I alienated many at school, and needed to be placed in a special class for my behaviour, as much as for the learning disabilities that also came with the trauma of my birth.
The part of my brain responsible for decoding symbols had also been damaged, meaning that signs, letters and numbers – even expressions on faces – are like puzzle pieces, to be solved slowly.
Though I understand audio books at an adult level, my reading and writing lag far behind. I did not learn to read or write until I was in senior school, and that added the social burden of being considered “dumb.”
Through my riding, I have developed emotional self-control. Horses are highly intelligent and sensitive creatures, and can always detect the feelings of riders.
I have had several horses for one-year training periods that became so sensitized to my emotions and commands that they could almost read my thoughts.
To ride well, I needed to be able to keep my mount calm. And to succeed in competition, I had to display a relaxed demeanour to the judges, to express the ease of my control of the horse.
No matter what negative things I was feeling inside, I had to control them.
By developing this skill, I was rewarded not only by advancing steadily through the rankings of competitive riders, but also by changes in the rest of my life.
The constant repetition of riding skills, and the practice of each skill in small, simple steps during classes, made it easier for me to learn. Because of my love for horses and those classes and competitions, I met many others both of my own age and adults, too, who shared my interest and became my friends.
I no longer found myself in trouble at school for bullying or fighting. I don’t feel socially inept or out of place and unable to participate in sports any more.
I can now converse with people from other countries whom I have met at competitions, and in their own language, at least to a limited degree. I have a broader social circle among the ‘horse competition” group, and that makes it easier for me to converse with people outside that group, too.
Once considered multihandicapped, I have had such an improvement in strength and social confidence that I joined the school wrestling team last year.
It’s a long way from being a social pariah, shunned by most of the school, mocked and bullied for my differences, basically friendless, and with a poor self-image, too.
Now, I enjoy school and I’m also working on fixing computers at my father’s company. I play sledge hockey with a local team, as well as wrestling on the school team.
But I’m always waiting for Tuesday, the day of the week that I go riding.
Micah J. Vail lives in London, Ont.
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