About six months ago Esmé’s medicaid case manager asked if we had ever considered trying horseback riding therapy, known as hippotherapy, for Esmé.
At the time I wondered if she and I were thinking about the same kid…Esmé was unable to reliably sustain a seated position on the floor. How would it be possible for her to sit up on a horse? A moving horse? A moving horse that, I thought, might very well trample her.
Perhaps we could duct tape her to the saddle?
I could just see Ezzy, securely adhered to an out of control horse galloping over the horizon…
In the spirit of being open-minded, however, we contacted the therapist that our case manager recommended, and brought Ez for a visit to the barn. Ezzy was, shall we say, underwhelmed on that visit. She refused to even look at the horses, and she was limp as can be. The therapist saw our hesitation and suggested we try a non-commital “pony ride” to see how Ez would react. We figured it was an ok thing to try–and that it would likely last all of thirty seconds before Ez would throw her weight around, refuse to hold up her head, and/or breathhold. Then we would be free to say (as we have said many times before for other activities): we tried, it didn’t work, we will try again in a year or two. And then my hubby and I could have a good laugh about it as we drove back home.
So we tried it.
Up she went on a little saddle that is still impossibly large for her, boppy pillow behind her–A parent on one side, the therapist on the other, and another person leading the horse.
The thing is, she loved it.
She sat up surprisingly tall, big smile on her face. She rode for 8 minutes that first time and I have rarely seen her look so proud. That day, it seems, her perspective on the world changed–her ability to command a space, to be independent…as did our perspective on what she could do.
In the weeks since we started doing lessons we have seen her get stronger at an amazing rate. Her endurance for staying on the horse has improved to over 20 minutes. She is needing less and less help to stay on the horse safely. She is focused and serious about what she is doing, but she is obviously also having a lot of fun–flashing cheesey grins at whichever parent is watching as she passes them in the ring. Our Saturday mornings have started revolving around getting her to the barn to ride…it has become a really beautiful rhythm in our lives. And we all look forward to spending time with the handsome and gentle horse, Prince, that she rides.
Ezzy and Prince seem already to have a beautiful connection. The first few times she rode him, he took mincing steps and refused to shake the flies from his face so that he could keep her steady and safe. Now that she is more and more stable he challenges her, extending his gate and occassionally giving a little shake (which she thinks is hysterical). We’ve been working on her holding on to the horn of the saddle on her own and tapping it to indicate she is ready to go.
Yesterday Ezzy had her best day riding. She was so comfortable that we were able to have Prince trot a few steps. Ezzy thought the bouncing was possibly the best thing that has ever happened. We also took a ride outside the ring, for a new challenge: riding up and back down a hill. It was all a lot, honestly…and I figured she would be exhausted by the time we walked back to the barn. But when we got there Ez got a goofy look on her face and started slapping her hand on the horn of the saddle, emphatically indicating “Go! Go! Go!”
We did another lap and when we reached the barn for the second time she started again, slapping: “Go! Go! Go!”
Our tiny little girl, commanding this gentle giant of a horse (and several adults)…
And I was reminded again of the image of her riding off over the horizon. But this time I could see it, Ezzy bigger, more confident, leading a horse where she wants him to go–the horse responding to her line of sight, the pressure of her heels against his sides, her body position, communicating the same wordless, intuitive language Esmé speaks.