I watched as Sinead Collazo meticulously groomed Wrigley, a Haflinger pony donated to "Move A Child Higher (MACH-1) by the Tournament of Roses Association. Sinead, a student studying Equine Science at Colorado State, was home for Thanksgiving and volunteering at the Rose Bowl Riders' stables. Her meticulous attention towards Wrigley was founded in an obvious love for horses.
MACH-1 is an altruistic and therapeutic riding program working with disabled children and adults. Using the discipline of Hippotherapy, horses are used for therapeutic intervention. Joy Rittenhouse, the program director explained, "The movement of a horse is similar to our walk. Hippotherapy helps with balance, strengthens the upper core body muscles, enhances pelvic rotation, concentration, hand and eye coordination, and creates intellectual independence.
I asked Joy, "Why horses?"
She replied, "Horses are incredible animals. They know when people have special needs and try their best to meet those needs. Horses are understanding, compassionate, and non-judgmental. The bond developed between children and horses enhance emotional contact."
Gayle Jenkins, a MACH-1 volunteer, gave numerous accounts of the contributions of their horses: Mr. Dotz, Mercy, Lavender, Wrigley and Heidi. "Watching the children smile and be normal if only for an afternoon brings a realization that we did something better for the world," Jenkins said.
Using horses for therapeutic endeavor evolved from the writings of Hippocrates of ancient Greece. In his work, "Natural Exercise," he mentions riding as a means of wellbeing. In the 1960s the horse became an adjunct to physical therapy throughout Europe. In 1969 the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association (NARHA) instituted Hippotherapy as a viable methodology for working with individuals with special needs. NARHA is the parent of therapeutic riding associations providing legitimacy through training, mentoring and certification for volunteers.
My knowledge of horses is limited. Other than riding through the wilds of Northern Arizona with some Navaho buddies, I have no concrete understanding of that symbiotic union between a horse and an individual. I've read "Richard III" by Shakespeare and never quite understood the king's passionate colloquy about horses, "A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!" I think I know now. After conversing with Joy and Gayle and watching Sinead's interaction with Wrigley, I am convinced that Texas folklorist Frank Dobie's description of a horse as, "The most beautiful, the most spirited, and the most inspiring creature ever to print foot on the grasses of America," is a reality that few experience.
I asked a thousand questions of Joy and Gayle and through their passionate eyes my sensitivity toward children with special needs heightened. Beyond the technical subtleties of the therapeutics of Hippotherapy, I was captivated by the words of one of their disabled riders, Cayla Kim: "I can do this…all by myself!"
That must be the essence of their work, I thought. Independence, a sense of accomplishment, and esteem are perhaps the variables that surmount disability. An afternoon with horses is only a brief moment in the spectrum of life but I suppose those magnificent creatures have a way of leaving their mark.
An old Bedouin Proverb says, "To ride a horse is to ride the sky." I suppose that's true. Whatever befalls these children — long life short life, stormy or calm — spending an afternoon with horses can make the inflicted rich forever. Some of us never get even one afternoon.
If you're looking to make a difference on a local level there is plenty of opportunity to lend a hand at MACH-1. I have always believed that volunteering can be an exciting, growing, enjoyable experience. It is gratifying to serve a cause, practice one's ideals, work with people, solve problems, see results, and know one had a hand in them.
I got one more quote from Joy as I rushed back to school, "At MACH-1 we do something every day — we make the world better."
JOE PUGLIA is a practicing counselor, a professor of education at Glendale Community College and a former officer in the Marines. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.