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Friday, February 01, 2013

I Hate That #$@%$# Horse....

(c) 2013 by Tom King

I spent a lot of years working with severely troubled kids. I started one of the first equestrian programs that worked specifically with emotionally disturbed children. The state didn't like it. Other people working in children's mental health said we were out of our mind to put "those kids" on horseback.  They predicted all sorts of dire results - kids galloping off into the woods, abusing horses and getting themselves kicked, stomped and bucked off.

Nothing of the kind happened.  In my two years in the saddle, spending some seven hours a day I think we had one child kicked.  He'd been banned from the stable for unsafe behavior for several weeks prior to the incident. The first think he did when he came back for his first session, was to run down a row of peacefully breakfasting horses, slapping them on the butt. My horse, Cinnamon was last in line and saw him coming.  She waited till he reached her and then smartly kicked him into a pile of horse manure.  He was never allowed to come back to the horse program again - the only kid ever permanently banned from riding.

The story I wanted to tell happened one summer day just after the last session.  I'd put up all the horses except Buck, a huge dun-colored and very muscular horse I was testing.  We'd only had him a few weeks and I wanted to run him through his paces to see what sort of temperament he had before I put kids on him. I had him tied by the gate to the horse pasture while I carried some paperwork to my office.

I heard a disturbance from the direction of the dorm.  As I looked that way as ten year old "J" (not his real name) burst out the door, and broke for the woods. Our therapy dog, a black and white border collie named Benji and a large and not terribly fit staff member in hot pursuit.  The staffer made it as far as the creek before pulling up winded.  J had a long history of running away for extended periods of time.  Not wanting to lose him again, I tossed my clipboard on the porch in front of my office and sprinted (I could still sprint back then) toward Buck. Reaching the gate, I untied the reins, pitched them over Buck's neck and swung up into the saddle (a surprising height for me as short-legged as I am).  I swung Buck around and gave him a nudge in the rips and shouted, "Hya!".  Buck needed little urging. He broke toward the woods like a starting gate had just opened.  I shouted, "I'll get him!"  as we galloped past his gasping counselor, He waved weakly at us as we tore past him.

I discovered several things about Buck in the next few seconds.  First he was very fast. He hit full speed so fast I had to catch the saddle horn to keep from sliding off the back of the saddle.  Second, Buck is the only horse I've ever ridden with an automatic transmisson.  As he took off toward the woods, he went through three distinct gear changes, shifting smoothly from walk to trot to lope to dead run - boom, boom, boom. Also, the horse is sprung like a Rolls Royce - smoothest gait I ever saw in a horse. At a trot, the ride was incredibly smooth. A full gallop was like floating along on a very fast cloud.

We roared past "J" about fifty yards from the path that led into the woods.  I didn't intend to roar past the boy, but I here I discovered something else about Buck.  He knew what we needed to do better than I did. From that point on, I was only partially in charge of the proceedings. Once we had passed "J" he wheeled around and planted himself in "J's" path.

"Where you going?" I asked "J" as kindly as I could muster from my perch way up on top of this huge horse.  "J" tried to break left to get around Buck.  Without warning, Buck broke in the same direction and again planted himself in "J's" path. Up top, I managed to retain my seat after nearly being tossed from the saddle. Buck looked back over his shoulder at me in disgust.

"J" broke right and this time I was ready, leaning into Buck's sudden matching lurch to again reblock "J's" path to the woods. The three of us repeated the dance two or three times.  I gave up trying to rein Buck. It confused him. I soon found myself using slight pressure from my knees to steer the old cutting horse. When they donated him to us, nobody had told me he was a former rodeo cutting horse.To Buck, "J" was a particularly stubborn calf and his pride as a cutter was up.  He didn't do anything dangerous, just patiently moved back and forth, keeping himself between "J" and the woods and gradually herded him back toward the main campus.  Benji the dog circled the scene excited by what he figured was a mighty interesting game of tag.

Finally, exhausted "J" gave it up.  He screwed up his face and planted his fists firmly his hips. He gave Buck a look of disgust. "I hate that @#$% horse!" he snapped.

I grinned and laughed out loud.  I couldn't help myself. "J" turned and stalked back toward the dorms.  I rode up beside him, leaned over the saddle horn and extended him my hand.  ""You goin' my way, Pal?" I asked.

He gave me a sheepish grin, shrugged and reached up to catch my hand.  I swung him up into the saddle behind me. Benji the collie, took off ahead of us to show us the way home. We talked a little about what a cutting horse was and how Buck had once been a rodeo horse.  We took the long way back.  "J" kind of thought it was funny that Buck had mistaken him for a loose calf. He finally told me what was wrong and by the time we got back home we had a plan for dealing with his troubles that didn't involve running away. "J's" brothers had once tried to set him on fire.  Later, he had come home from school to find that his family had moved away and left him behind. The police found him sleeping on an abandoned sofa in a vacant lot. I understood why he tended to run away from trouble.

I stopped to drop him off in front of the dorm and told him I had to put Buck away.  He asked me if  I needed any help.  I took him with me to the barn.  We brushed Buck down, fed him and turned him loose.  Before Buck took off to join the rest of the heard, "J" reached up and patted the big horse on the nose.  Old Buck lowered his head and nudged "J" in the ribs. As he turned away and headed toward the pasture. I reached for my big red bandana - allergies, you know. 

Stuff like that happened all the time at Odyssey Harbor.  I used to carry the bandana as part of my strategy to maintain my manly image.  Truth is - I'm a big tub of mush.

When I look back on a hundred little incidents like that, I am proud of the work we all did at Odyssey Harbor. The lives that were changed were not just those of the children.

Just One Man's Opinion

Tom King

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