One of the great tragedies of knowing and loving horses is that their minds, their spirits, their verve so often outlive their bodies. Therapy horses are frequently on their second or third career so many of them are seniors. The youthful days of bucking for the fun of it, acting like whirling dervishes on cold mornings, and sniffing the air for sassy mares or musky stallions are behind them. Sadly, the perfect mature mind for therapeutic riding can live inside a senior body in slow decline.
Making the decision to retire Aztec has been one of the most difficult decisions thrust upon me since opening Worthy Stables. This includes some pretty intense choices for which I have been responsible. I rarely miss out on a good night’s sleep. The combination of fresh air, manual labor, and rich experiences has been outstanding for my sleep life. However, this one has kept me awake. Picturing Aztec’s big, bucket head looking lazily out of stall #2, his shouts for dinner when he hears the sweet siren song of pouring Purina Senior into his dented navy blue bucket, remembering him dozing on the farrier’s back as he got his 6 week pedicure, and laughing at his habit of drowsily working his jaw around and around exactly as a cow chews its cud, make it impossible to be casual about his impending retirement.
I’m asked the same question, weekly at least. As guests and participants, new volunteers and parents walk the aisles of the well-lit, hay scented, red barn, with the long faces of our therapy team, boarding horses, and my own mare gracing their windows and stall doors, it never fails: “Which one is your favorite horse?”
As the mother of only one child, I can only try to imagine that this is how my mom always felt when we would ask, “Who is your favorite child?” In all honesty, they’re all my favorite for different reasons. Romeo is my favorite because his enormous Arabian brain and mighty will and cockiness have challenged my boldness, my leadership, and because there are a certain few riders to whom he reveals his humble underbelly. Jetta, because she is making me the horsewoman I want to be, because she was green as could be and a blank slate that I wrote the wrong habits and behaviors onto and ended up with titanium body parts because of it, and because she is graciously and with great grit relearning and becoming the horse partner I’ve always wanted. Smitty is my favorite for humor, his over developed Flehmen response causing him to make silly faces at good smelling ladies, and for his steadiness that tells of his days on cows and trails and among nonsense that doesn’t trouble him anymore. Bronco is my favorite for kids and for the brilliant, creative brains with autism and injury that build fantasy worlds around his petite unicorn frame. Ranger and Hero, who have endured pain and hard work, and still lower their heads into the arms of soldiers with tired spirits and kids who need to know something bigger than them can be gentle, are my favorites. And Dakota is because he’s the bravest of them all. I asked his previous owner if we could try mounted shooting off of Dakota and she replied that you could probably shoot AT Dakota and he’d shrug it off and continue on his way. He’s the most rational, least “horsey” horse I know.
Aztec is my favorite because of the dozens of first rides he’s carried people on. From nervous volunteers who have never touched an animal bigger than a golden retriever to kids with anxiety disorders and individuals with poor core strength or balance due to illness or brain injury, he has stood like a statue for mounting and moved with the gentle swing of something more like a boat on soft water than a horse on red clay. For the days I’ve needed to ride away but sore back and blistered feet cry out for a gentle ride, for the way he stands like a flamingo when he eats his beloved feed, for the times a fretful, frustrated non-verbal child laid across his back and dozed, finally, peaceful in the sun, Aztec is my favorite. For the way he can behave diplomatically with anyone, horse or barn cat, human or donkey, yipping dog or escaped neighborhood pig, and because he let us try mounted yoga on his back as he plodded steadily around the arena, once a powerful ranch horse now the base for downward facing dog and child’s pose.
I can see him now, from where I write this. The round curve of his flank narrower than ever, the comical obesity he had when we met long gone, Aztec must be nearing his 30’s, if not well into them. The vets and dentist and armchair experts have all looked into his graciously compliant mouth, sized up the grooves and angles and glassiness of his teeth and declared him, without exception, “Old.” I knew he was old when he came to us, lent to us by the family of a lifelong friend and veterinarian. I had just lost the horse I had planned programs and scores of activities around and I was raw and weary in that way that only sudden changes in big plans can make us. He was handed off to me, no questions asked, with the promise that he’d be good. And he was good, from day one. His trial period, according to our by-laws, was 30-90 days but in reality he won me over in a week.
Aztec’s friends here have included the broadest range of people of all my horses. In part because of his size, in part because he’s the same horse every single day, and in part because I love to share his peace with anxious, world-weary, frustrated, heartbroken, confused riders.
I can’t imagine Worthy Stables without Aztec right now. But what I can imagine is Aztec living out his days on more rolling green acres than we can provide him, sleeping in the sun, wandering among cows again, living the retirement they all deserve.
Aztec’s eyes are the most beautiful in the barn currently. Each one partially blue next to swirls of warm brown. I wonder how long I’ll picture him here and look for those soft, kind eyes.
I write this in honor of Aztec and of all the therapy animals that serve us with quiet dignity, loyalty, and graciousness. Enjoy your retirement, Moo. You’ve earned it with all the good grass and long naps you can stand. Thanks for everything.
Putting down roots in the place you grew up is a gift and a curse. A curse, primarily because it means that you, as a responsible adult, have to drive past the same houses you toilet papered, the mailboxes you put firecrackers in, the school at which you sowed plenty of wild oats. You see many of the same faces who taught you during your barefoot hippie days, the faces who bullied you in your miserable pre-teens, the faces you went on awkward first dates with.
It's largely a blessing to live here still, after 38 years, though. I've often wondered if my childhood memories are more vivid because I can drive past the places they occurred, my house, my school, my best friends' neighborhoods. It's also wonderful because many of the kids I grew up with are still here, too, and I can see them outgrow their foolishness or, just as often, grow from being great kids into greater adults. We drift into each other's social circles and places of employment, often with a head tilt and a squint, recognizing each other and saying a name or "Oak Grove, right?" or just a musical instrument or play that once bound us.
Opening Worthy Stables so near to my hometown, just on the edge of Hattiesburg, has been amazing because of the people it has returned to me. My friend Juliana, who, although a senior when I was a high school freshman, accepted me into her circle of amazing, creative friends and made me laugh with endless Monty Python quotes, brought her brilliant, unique girls to camps at the Stables. Amanda, who I was in school with from 4 year old preschool and kindergarten right through high school, brought her daughter to ride our horses. Her daughter has the exact gracious kindness that always made her mom seem so much older than we were. And another Amanda, who played in the marching band with me, reappeared in my life via social media and became a faithful financial supporter, always checking in and cheering us on. One of my dearest junior high friends who, like a celestial cycle, rotates back into my universe often and for such interesting purposes, Leslie has been like the Batman of donors when I put out an urgent call for hay funds, scholarships, or various needs. Her donations arrive right on time with a note expressing her huge heart, and I share a story of what she has provided for and we celebrate with tears. And the drum major, who I tormented with my rebellious spirit for an entire marching band season, sponsoring with her family one of our rescued barn cats. These cats are as much a part of the team as I am and her stepping in to provide for them was a gift that made me smile for weeks.
Then I got a call from Rachel, another mysteriously gracious kids I knew. She was youthful and playful but I don't remember ever hearing the mean-spirited jabs or insecure bullying that most of us engaged in as children figuring ourselves out. She contacted me about bringing her son to therapeutic riding after a new diagnosis of ASD (autism). We get this call often at Worthy Stables. Parents carrying the new responsibility of a heavy diagnosis, stepping into the role of proactive advocate for a child with special needs. It's quite an honor to know a family in this season of their life. Frequently it's messy or tumultuous, sometimes quiet and introspective, contemplative, or a season of relief after many years pursuing wisdom on perplexing behaviors in their beloved child. Although we lost touch for many years, to watch Rachel and her wonderful husband now, the grace and kindness she had as a child have only grown with her and made her an example of a nurturing mom and an asset to a boy striving to understand what makes his experience in this world different.
When Sawyer began riding at Worthy Stables, he often ducked behind his mom or dad a bit when they arrived, and his answers were quiet and brief. Once on a horse, he relaxed a bit those first few rides but was still rather guarded. And then it happened. There's a visit that shifts everything into a different gear for many of our participants. Sometimes it's a glimmer of hope in the eyes of trauma survivor wrestling their way to self-worth and the boldness that comes with it. It can be the day a child from a low income situation finally feels some ownership and without hesitation says the words, "MY horse, " "MY saddle," "MY helmet." Or it can be when a socially anxious child with autism or severe dyslexia or the unimaginable scars of abuse, finally relaxes and brings up a conversation topic or asks a big question unsolicited. It's a hold-your-breath and keep the tears in moment. It's why we do what we do. For Sawyer, that moment was on the back of a horse. His mind wasn't entirely on the new skill we were working toward but he was making an effort. Finally, without prompting, he stopped his horse and looked toward the road and the horses grazing in the paddock beside us. "Do you think a horse is one horsepower?" he asked. A scientific mind! I love this! I didn't want to respond with too much enthusiasm and risk shutting him down. "Do you think one horse equals one horsepower?, " I ask him. "No, that doesn't seem quite right."
Well, one horse does not have one horsepower. While we practiced riding that day, we looked up the definition of horsepower, how many horsepower humans are capable of, and how many horsepower a horse actually has. Then we got the giggles talking about horses in various physics demonstrations in which no one would think to use a horse. Sawyer's laugh is infectious and his sense of humor is this wonderful blend of little boy and big intellect. It ranges from the noises that come out of his horse's rear when he trots to science jokes that almost sneak over my head. Laughing with him takes up a large part of our appointments now, as does looking up the answers to huge questions that are beyond my purview.
Rachel sent me a message this week that stopped me in my tracks on a busy day. I am just going to share it with you. I have read it several times since it arrived.
"I was explaining to Sawyer tonight why its so hard to make friends when you have autism and why it's hard to communicate with people sometimes. Then we started talking about how when we meet other people who are on the spectrum, we usually gravitate toward them and it's so easy to talk to them and be friends with them. The next question out of his mouth was, "Mama, so do you think Mrs. Jessie is on the spectrum, too?" It made my heart smile so big. Your buddy is missing you."
I don't know if I can think of a greater compliment to be paid by a child than that. To be identified as someone easy to talk to, someone who may be the same different as he is. While I have not been placed on the fascinating, perplexing spectrum of autism, I will forever wear Sawyer's question as a badge of great honor.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go study up for Sawyer’s next lesson. Sitting trot is on my lesson plan but I have a feeling we will discuss vehicle aerodynamics, equine circulatory systems, or why Dakota wiggles his ears when he poops. Maybe all of the above!
(Names and photos used with permission from parents or guardians.)