As a child, one of my greatest wishes was for a house, a horse, and a barn. A desire shared by countless children, the idyllic vision of a pastoral homestead is something that seems to possess the imagination of many young people, especially girls. The linchpin of this dream is the intelligent, powerful, and beautiful horse. An animal that can make you feel like you're on top of the world when you're perched on its broad back. It makes you feel connected to something indescribable. Something more. It's as if a horse can make your dreams, no matter how wild, seem a little more in reach with it at your side.
It's more than a school-girl's fantasy. For me, and so many others, there is still something magical about a horse. As New York Times bestselling author Laurel Braitman puts it, "Horses...are borderland creatures; gateway animals to other worlds. They help us imagine other ways of being."
Indeed, they allow us to feel powerful, beautiful, successful, and intelligent in a culture and society that often sends us opposite messages. Their combination of beauty and grace, power and elegance remind girls and women alike that they share these same attributes.
Some of my most cherished childhood memories are when my aunt's neighbors would let me ride on their horses with them. But aside from an occasional guided trail ride at a park, my chances to commune with these wonderful animals has been limited to interactions separated by fencing. Even so, their eyes speak to me. With certain horses there is a feeling of understanding and compassion that seems to suggest an immediate bond of friendship.
As a child, you want a horse. It's difficult to understand why you can't have one. But as you grow up, you learn that owning a horse is expensive. Lessons are expensive, boarding a horse is expensive, riding equipment is expensive. Seemingly everything about a horse except looking at one is expensive.
So, like so many others that shared this childhood wish, I let it go. A fond and fading memory.
Sometimes, however, fate grabs one of your memories from the dustbin of life, knocks the cobwebs off, and gives you another chance.
Sometimes, you find a place that specializes in giving horses another chance too, while giving people new opportunities.
R&R New Options Equine Rescue and Rehab sits on several rolling acres of pasture just outside Sandy, Oregon, with snow covered Mt. Hood observing from a distance. The goal of New Options is to foster confidence, work ethic, and a sense of accomplishment in disabled, disadvantaged, and dis-empowered youth by teaching them to participate in the care, training and rehabilitation of abused and neglected horses. They also work "to supply a safe, secure, nurturing environment for equine and persons in need, whether that need be physical, mental or spiritual.” Simply put, they recognize that a deep bond can and does exist between people and horses, and that bond shouldn't be deterred by anything, least of all financial issues. If you're willing to help on the farm, you'll be able to learn to ride, feed, and care for the horses.
As we pulled down a long gravel driveway on a bright and warm morning, horses lifted their heads and watched us curiously before going back to their breakfast of hay. We waited for Leslie and Karen, who run the farm, to arrive while watching younger volunteers return from the morning feeding chores.
Within minutes, we were stacking hay bales in the barn. We followed that up with a trip to the "infirmary" pasture to feed some horses that are healing. Later, we grabbed pruning shears and loppers, and worked with some of the farm's participants to remove a blackberry thicket that had wrapped its thorny and unforgiving arms around a fence and some equipment. After breaking for lunch, we moved the hay elevator down from the rafters so it would be ready for the following day's hay delivery, then wrapped up our work by grooming some of the horses under the expert tutelage of children as young as eleven.
Sweating, sneezing from the hay, covered in dust, and displaying forearms that were nicked and bloody from blackberry battles, I looked worse for the wear. But, like the other volunteers and participants that bore the same evidence of a hard days work, I was just happy to be there.
The participants were a testament to the fact that R&R New Options is accomplishing its mission. Their work ethic showed. They worked as a team. They were smart, polite, hard working, and fearless around animals that towered over them.
This is exactly the kind of place where I would have happily spent my entire summer when I was younger. Honestly, it's the kind of place where I would happily spend my entire summer now. In part because the reward is in knowing that you are in a place that is caring for and providing a safe and secure home for sentient beings that have been abused, traumatized and/or neglected, but also because it gives you, and everyone working along side you, the confidence and opportunity to fulfill lifelong goals and dreams.
And then came another reward.
"Ever ride a horse?" Leslie asked. "Ever ride bareback?" she continued with a grin.
Having admitted that I'd never had the chance to ride sans saddle, I suddenly found myself mounting Cougar, a gorgeous chestnut horse that patiently stood while I tried to retain everything that was being taught to me.
Don't just use the reins, but look where you want to go because the horse will follow the direction that your body is turned.
Roll your shoulders back and firmly and say "Whoa" when you want to stop.
There were other instructions and tips, but admittedly, sometimes the sheer excitement of the moment would get the best of me. I would catch myself looking down at this stunning horse, caught up in my own happiness; feeling like I was on top of the world. And then I'd have to snap back to reality, realizing I needed Cougar to be turning to the right.
The obvious idea that I have to use my words and my body to communicate with the horse seemed new to me, even though I do it subconsciously with humans every day. However, with no saddle separating me from Cougar, I could feel his muscles contract, and his body sway. My slightest movements seemed to reverberate through the horse. I felt physically connected to him. It served as a beautiful reminder that even if we don’t recognize it, we are always using forms of communication beyond our words. Animals are more keen to pick up on this, since most lack or have limited verbal abilities. It was a good lesson in complete mindfulness for me. A lesson in the connection of mind, body, and soul, not just within ourselves, but with all living things.
Also, as Cougar stopped, staring straight at the fence in front of his muzzle, it was a reminder that I may need more horse riding lessons.