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Therapeutic riding has a long history of helping veterans with traumatic injuries, so when Meredith Hodges decided to focus an episode of her television documentary series on hippotherapy, she knew she had to include a Wounded Warrior. If you’ve seen the “Walk On” episode of Those Magnificent Mules, you may remember Army technician Natasha McKinnon, then 24 years old, who had lost her left leg below the knee following an IED explosion in Afghanistan. Under the supervision of riding instructor Mary Jo Beckman, herself a retired Navy Commander, Natasha was working to improve her physical movement with therapeutic riding. In the program, they used Army caisson horses and Natasha bonded with one equine in particular, named Mini. She describes Mini as “a big, white, comfy couch” who watched over her like a big sister.
Now 33 years old, Natasha has finally reached a place she can describe as her “new normal.” When we spoke, she had just picked up her diploma from North Carolina State University, where she’d recently graduated with a degree in animal sciences. Although school took a little longer due to some challenges, her determination and love of animals kept her pushing forward to achieve her goal. Armed with her new degree, Natasha is looking forward to working as a veterinary technologist, seeking more hands-on experience after concentrating on her studies in school. She says she would also like to work with veterans’ groups that use animals for emotional therapy and healing.
Today, Natasha can reflect back on her injury, acknowledging that it “lit more of a fire under me.” Like many returning soldiers, she says there have been mental and emotional ups and downs. At the same time, however, she says: “It puts things more in perspective; for me to really not take things for granted. I have to be more mindful of my physical well-being than ever before. I’ve been dealt this hand but I can still manage it.” New advancements in prosthetic equipment have also improved her outlook and her confidence, as she can acquire different legs for different purposes, such as walking and running. The technology is evolving, she says, and so is she.
I swear, his giggling began in his toes. In the way only an unselfconscious 8 year old can laugh, it filled his whole body and the whole arena, bursting out in millions of chubby bubbles. I could feel them around me, infecting me with joy. Pretty soon, I was giggling so hard that I was having a hard time keeping pace with the trotting horse. He lifted his chin into the air and declared, “LOOK AT ME! I’M HAVING SO MUCH FUN!”
Anyone who works with disabled kids will tell you that, on many days, we learn more from them than they learn from us. When I got to Hearts and Horses today, I was teary-eyed and tired. I had briefly thought about cancelling and staying home to regroup, but made myself drive the 20 miles. Well, needless to say, I left this afternoon feeling energized and light-hearted, my burdens put into perspective by some very special kids.
Here’s what I learned:
Ask for and accept help when I need it.
How often do I turn down help, insisting I can do everything on my own? How often do I cheat people out of the opportunity to minister to me because I have some delusion that I don’t need help? These kids are teaching me that there is no shame in asking for and accepting assistance. And, it blesses both the giver and the receiver!
Eyes forward – keep the big picture in mind.
Kids have no problem looking with wonder at what’s around them. One of the key aspects of being a successful rider is looking where you want to go, rather than down at the horse’s head. I rarely have to remind a kid of this. This is a big lesson for me! I often have my nose in the gritty details of life, buried in the things that can’t be changed. Looking up, looking around, and focusing on where I want to go is a game-changer.
Find my balance.
I am amazed over and over again how easily children take to riding, even kids with disabilities. Kids don’t over-think “how” they’re supposed to sit or hold the reins. They just do what feels comfortable, and they’re usually right! As the horse moves or turns or changes gaits, they naturally make minor adjustments to their balance. I am the absolute worst and getting stuck off-balance in my life. I’m trotting along, leaning left, eyes all over the place, hands flailing, thinking that’s normal. I could take a cue from them and make some minor, necessary adjustments to find and keep my equilibrium.
Laugh at the funny stuff.
How many things pass me by every day that I’m too pre-occupied or too grumpy to laugh at? This NEVER happens to children. If something is funny, they laugh. Outrageously. The horse went fast when they weren’t expecting it. Laughter! The horse peed. Big laughter! The horse leader tripped and almost fell (ahem, that was me). Gigglefest! Funny stuff happens in life, often disguised as something uncomfortable. When did I forget to laugh?
Celebrate little accomplishments like they’re a big deal.
One of the most poignant and humbling things I have learned is that some kids have such major challenges that when they tap their heads and say, “Helmet!” it is cause for an eruption of celebration from all of us. I have never been more excited than I was today when a mostly non-verbal little girl managed to say “Whoa!” to her horse. I could have cried with joy. There are a million little moments of grace in my daily life. I need to recognize them and celebrate!
Learn when to say “Whoa” and when to say “Walk On”
It is a really big deal when these kiddos finally learn how to command their horse to stop and go. It gives them a feeling of accomplishment and autonomy. When they finally figure it out, they use those skills happily and with great abandon. They make that horse stop just because they can. And sometimes, they make the horse stop because disaster would strike if they kept going! Learning when to say walk on (yes) and whoa (no) is a skill I could work on for the rest of my life, and still never have down pat. I definitely need to practice.
So I ask, who was helping who today? Well, I can certainly tell you that I walked away changed and blessed beyond measure. Some of the best lessons in life are the simplest, and come from unexpected places.
postscript: You, too, can volunteer at an equine therapy center! Two years ago, I had ZERO horse experience. They trained and molded me into a horsewoman. Contact your local therapeutic riding center and ask! In Northern Colorado, we are blessed to have the best of the best, Hearts and Horses, in our back yard. People come from all over the country to be trained here. Come join me and experience the magic! If you can’t help physically, you can help support equine care and rider scholarships by going to http://www.heartsandhorses.org/giving A little bit goes a long way.
The following is a guest post from Hearts and Horses, the Loveland, CO-based equine therapy center.
Last week, Meredith Hodges came out to Hearts & Horses for an incredible day of professional development for the Hearts & Horses staff. During the day, Meredith demonstrated training and equine handling techniques, using Allie and Sadie, the two mules that she donated to Hearts & Horses. Hearts & Horses staff spent time in the classroom and in the arena with Meredith as she shared her training tools that aid in effectively communicating with equines while developing their balance and working toward conditioning, so they can perform to the best of their ability as equine therapists and in any other career.
While Hearts & Horses focuses on equines as Therapeutic Partners, Meredith’s training techniques are invaluable for horsemen and horsewomen of all backgrounds.
Meredith and Lucky Three Ranch have been long time supporter of Hearts & Horses and all of our diverse programs. We so value her support and guidance and look forward to our continued partnership and friendship in the future! Thank you Meredith!
Click here for more information about Lucky Three Ranch including tours, training and education opportunities.
In 2007, when Meredith Hodges decided to film a television documentary about therapeutic riding, she headed to Loveland, Colorado-based therapeutic riding center, Hearts and Horses. There, she met five-year-old Sarah Foley and her mother, Diane. Sarah was born with generalized body weakness, making it difficult for her to perform tasks that required any sort of physical stamina or strength. Luckily, Diane is a physical therapist, and began looking for creative ways to help strengthen her daughter’s body. A pony ride at a friend’s birthday party immediately captured Sarah’s attention, and she began hippotherapy when she was two years old. By the time we interviewed her, Sarah had moved from hippotherapy, where the horse was being used as a modality to assist with her low tone, to therapeutic riding, where she was developing riding skills, controlling the horse independently of her volunteers.
Today, Sarah is twelve years old. We caught up with her and Diane to talk about how their lives have changed since that original interview. Even now, Diane notes that riding plays an important part in Sarah’s life. “She is still riding once a week,” said Diane. “She’s kept it up pretty much the entire time.” After a period of vast improvement, in which she was showing no signs of disability or physical deficits, Sarah ended up developing arthritis. Diane termed it “A little bump in the road, so she got more active in horseback riding, and has now overcome that also.”
When we speak on the phone, Sarah sounds like any bright, happy and enthusiastic preteen. “I’m feeling really good,” she says. “I love horseback riding, and I swim a lot, and I like playing with my dog.” She dreams of becoming either a teacher or an actress on Broadway some day. Sarah still does her riding at Hearts and Horses, and is now paired with a speckled gray horse named Boomer, that she describes as a very big challenge—but one that’s very close to her heart. “If Boomer went up for sale at Hearts and Horses, ever, I would buy him just like that,” she says. In general, Sarah describes horseback riding as an empowering experience: “I feel like we have a connection kind of. I can do anything when I’m on a horse. “
Sarah eventually moved from needing the assistance of two sidewalkers and a leader to only a leader. With the increased strength and confidence, Sarah’s instructor began to incorporate preliminary vaulting moves to strengthen her core and sense of independence. She was thankful for the assistance of the side walkers though, as it showed her she was capable of amazing things even in her first days of riding. “It made me feel more confident in myself, that I could ride on my own,” she recalled. “As [I used] the side walkers less and less and less, I started to get more confident … and finally I’m to the point where I am right now.” Equine therapy is more than just physical rehabilitation, as it also focuses on training people to be better riders and gain confidence, regardless of their starting capabilities. “I’m a really good rider now because of horse therapy and what they did for me,” says Sarah, also pointing to the inspiration of her parents: “My parents had a big part in it, making me not quit horseback riding and keep going with it—not that I would want to quit, but they would not have let me quit, that’s for sure.”
At the age of twelve, Sarah has accomplished a great deal in her life already, but describes it with an air of humility, simply saying, “It’s been a long road.” As advice for other people in her position, she stresses the benefits of positive thinking and optimism. “I think that anything can be overcome,” she says. “Maybe not always physically, but overcome mentally,” adding that physical transformations are sometimes possible too, like her success with arthritis. “I think people can do anything if they really, really want to,“ she says, and it’s clear that Sarah’s unflinching belief in that statement, along with her equine therapy, will help her accomplish anything she truly desires.
Visit Hearts and Horses’ website to find out more about their commitment to therapeutic riding, and watch Sarah’s full episode of Those Magnificent Mules, “Walk On: Part 2,” available to rent on demand.
The following is an excerpt from a post by The Donkey Sanctuary.
Luminiţa (which means ‘little light’) has cerebral palsy and learning difficulties. When she was brought to the Don Orione orphanage she had signs of being institutionalized, including being extremely withdrawn, banging her head and pulling her hair out. She was unable to walk but has since had an operation and access to a physiotherapy programme, including donkey riding therapy three times a week through our Romanian project, to combat her leg stiffness and increase her leg and core strength.
Her physiotherapist Carmelia is thrilled with her progress, Luminiţa can now walk with support and is gaining the strength to stand and climb. Her character has also grown and she has become a happy, inquisitive little girl who clearly loves her time with the four donkeys, Boss, Claudio, Ioan and Sile. She also benefits from learning about caring for the donkeys, grooming them and understanding how important it is for them to be happy.
Carmelia added “It can be difficult for these children to learn to empathise and relate with others but each moment with the donkeys is a simple and rewarding interaction. The donkey’s needs and movements aren’t complicated like those of humans. Movements or affection can be taken at face value and the children learn that they are safe to form positive relationships that are rewarding for the children and the donkeys.
“In addition, the donkey riding therapy provides enormous physical benefits for Luminiţa as she builds her balance and stretches during her sessions. Her legs can be very stiff but riding therapy helps to loosen her muscles and make her more comfortable.”
Colorado Gives Day is an initiative to increase philanthropy in Colorado through online giving. On this one day–Tuesday, December 10, 2013–Coloradans will come together to raise millions of dollars for nonprofits. Last year, $15.7 million was donated. Presented by Community First Foundation and FirstBank, Colorado Gives Day has taken place during a 24-hour period each winter since 2010. Donations are accepted through the website ColoradoGives.org, with a goal to inspire and unite Coloradans in supporting local nonprofits.
This is Hearts and Horses’ first year as part of Colorado Gives Day and their goal is to raise at least $10K for their amazing programs.
Why contribute through Colorado Gives Day? There are no fees, so 100% of your donation goes to Hearts and Horses. Donations of $10 and above are accepted, empowering MANY to participate. Hearts and Horses will also be vying for thousands of additional dollars to be awarded to Larimer County non-profits based upon unique donors, social shares, and dollars raised. This prize program is available in addition to the statewide Incentive Funds and exclusive to the 94 participating organizations in their region.
And this year, Meredith Hodges will match dollar for dollar all funds raised for Hearts and Horses on Colorado Gives Day, to continue helping them attain the resources necessary to become one of the premier therapeutic riding programs in the country.
Click here to schedule your donation to Hearts and Horses, or bookmark the link to donate on Tuesday!
Our friends at Hearts & Horses, the non-profit therapeutic riding facility located in Loveland, CO, need your support. They have organized a few great events coming up–see below for more information on how you can help, whether you’re in Colorado or beyond!
The Power of the Horse Extravaganza is a rider showcase, open house and concert to support Hearts & Horses and encourage community growth. The event will also include activity booths and delicious local food truck vendors. Hearts & Horses is looking for riders, sponsors and volunteers for this event as well, if you have the time and skills to contribute more.
This day of fun starts at 11:30am on Sunday, September 22, 2013. Find out more information about the event here.
If you can’t make it to the party, you can experience the concert at home by listening to and purchasing the album of songs here. All of these great songs were written especially for this event!
Hearts & Horses’ annual gala is also coming up, and this year the theme is: Lucky Hearts Casino Night. This event will be held on Saturday, October 5, at the Rocky Mountain Center for Innovation and Technology in Loveland. This is a great way to support Hearts & Horses while also having a fun night out. For more information on this event, and to purchase tickets, become a sponsor, or donate any items to the silent auction, click here.
With heavy hearts, we at Lucky Three Ranch say goodbye to our good friend, Cliff Uber. Cliff was an inspiration to everyone who knew him. His grace, courage and sense of humor will be missed.
A selection of the official statement from Hearts and Horses is below:
It is with an incredibly heavy heart that we announce the passing of our rider, volunteer, trainer and dear friend Cliff Uber. For ten years he has graced us all with his beautiful presence, infectious smile, sense of peace and patience and a wonderful sense of humor. The grief we are experiencing can not be described.
This world was a better place with him in it, and saying he will be missed dearly just doesn’t even touch the tip of the iceberg of love we have for him.
Rest in Peace our dear friend…
A Celebration of Cliff’s life will be held at Hearts and Horses on Saturday, December 8th at 3:30. Attire is casual western wear. We will have a potluck dinner, please rsvp to firstname.lastname@example.org with what you are bringing.
The family has requested that In lieu of flowers, memorial donations be made to Hearts and Horses. Details can be found under the giving tab on their website: www.heartsandhorses.org.
Cliff Uber has been recognized as the 2012 PATH Intl. Independent Adult Equestrian award winner! He will be honored as a special guest at the PATH Intl. Awards Banquet held at the 2012 PATH Intl. Conference & Annual Meeting on November 2, 2012 in Bellevue, WA. Thanks to Purina Mills for providing travel schloarships for the equestrian award winners. As the Independent Adult Equestrian National Award Winner he receives scholarship reimbursement funds of up to $1500.
You may recognize Cliff from his appearance on the “Walk On, Part 1” episode of Those Magnificent Mules, and we are extremely proud of his success!
Bud (Sir Rocko) has earned the PATH Intl. Horse of the Year for Region 10 and will also be honored at the awards banquet. As a regional winner, he is a finalist for the 2012 PATH Intl. National Horse of the Year Award, which will be announced and celebrated at the awards banquet. Bud has been with Hearts & Horses since 2005 and is a most deserved recipient of this award!