Current occupation: Therapeutic Horseback Riding Instructor
Past occupation: Writing Tutor
Contact Information: Karen M. Brittle has published fiction and creative nonfiction in multiple journals and magazines, among them Cooweescoowee, Kaleidoscope, Ars Medica and Dressage Today. She has an MA in English with a concentration in Creative Writing from Rhode Island College. Karen teaches horseback riding lessons to equestrians with and without special needs. She also writes. "Barn Dust" is the first chapter of her book, Barn Dust: Becoming & Practicing as a Therapeutic Horseback Riding Instructor.
I am driving my aging Pontiac down Route 95 South, heading from Providence, Rhode Island to Old Lyme, Connecticut, new leather paddock boots stiff against my ankles. As usual, I feel guilty and anxious. That’s my modus-operandi, age thirty. As I drive, because I am awake, I bite my nails; when I sleep, I grind my teeth instead. It doesn’t matter what I’m doing – driving, eating, sleeping, teaching, visiting the child-who-was-my-step-child, walking my dog, making love to my new boyfriend – guilt, anxiety and second guessing underscore all other feelings, all the time.
For example, I am heading down the road today to do, essentially, a good deed: I am attending a volunteer training at High Hopes Therapeutic Riding, a horseback riding facility that provides services for individuals with special needs. I’m terrifically nervous (will I remember how to work with horses correctly?), horribly insecure (what makes me think I can commit to this when everything else has fallen apart?), and feeling guilty and anxious (mainly because I always do). In this case, I suppose the guilt is there in part because the Pontiac is getting old and I’ve just committed to driving 180 miles roundtrip for a volunteer role, once a week for the next twelve weeks. The guilt is augmented because, since my divorce three years prior, I’ve been on a debt-management program. As I drive, I ask myself: shouldn’t you spend this time at a paid part-time job, instead of volunteering? Just the price of gas makes this stupid. I questioned myself further: What if this car breaks down on your way? Or worse when you’re all the way down in Connecticut? What then? How will you get to and from the paying job you already have? After all, the car has 150,000 miles on it… I sip coffee as I drive, trapped in a sequence of never-ending, caffeine-fueled negative thoughts, a symphony of “Who do you think you are?”
A few weeks before, I called to reserve a spot in this Volunteer Orientation & Training. Laura Moya, one of the therapeutic horseback riding instructors at High Hopes, had returned my inquiry call about attending the training. During an informal phone interview with Laura, I found myself saying more than I’d intended. “I feel, well, I feel like learning about therapeutic horseback riding may be… part of who I am.”
“It’s pretty special,” Laura confirmed, her voice kind and cheerful.
“I’ve always heard of High Hopes by reputation,” I continued. “Always considered doing your Instructor Training Course. But I feel like volunteering will give me a better idea about that.” As soon as I said it, I felt anxious and embarrassed. Stupid, I told myself, she probably hears this all the time. And this is foolish – you haven’t been on a horse in over five years!
“Sounds like a good plan,” said Laura. “Come check everything out and see how you feel about it.” She went on to say that even though the volunteer training I wanted to attend was full, she’d find a spot for me. She confided that volunteers with “your kind of horse experience” were rare and much needed.
My kind of horse experience. As a teenager and young adult, I’d owned several horses and cared for and ridden many others, both for friends and as a paid stable hand. Through Pony Club, 4-H, and the local show circuit, I’d trained with excellent instructors and then gone off to college, planning to major in Equine Studies. My college program focused on three-day eventing, the daring equestrian sport that balances the precision of dressage work, with the bravery needed to jump cross-country at high speeds, and the skill and stamina to follow up with a stadium jump course. Sometime during college, I lost my focus. A career path with horses refused to present itself. And there were all those college English and writing courses: easy As and more socially acceptable, more palatable to my parents. Becoming an English teacher instead of a horse trainer seemed to leave room for other important stuff: marriage, children, free weekends, future financial stability. In another word: normal. Life as an English teacher would facilitate a whole lot of normal. It was time to grow up, I’d told myself (at 20), time to grow up and let go of horses.
“Therapeutic riding is something I’ve always wanted to know more about,” I repeated, too eagerly, to Laura on the phone.
“Well,” she said, her voice matter-of-fact but kind, “I think most of us felt that way about it when we first started. Maybe it’s your time.”
I arrive at the volunteer training terrified. I don’t remember ever in my life feeling such anxiety approaching a learning situation, though as an experienced equestrian and an educator comfortable with special needs populations, I should certainly be more than qualified for the basic volunteer roles. The classroom at High Hopes is filled mainly with teenagers and retirees, people looking to fulfill a school requirement or find a meaningful activity to fill long, newly free days. But it’s hard to be new in a place that I hope might hold answers for me, especially because High Hopes is big and impressive, a state-of-the-art equestrian facility built exclusively to serve special needs populations. A quick look around the facility reveals a twenty stall barn, a gigantic indoor arena with premier footing made from recycled rubber tires, a sweeping office space surrounding it, a lighted outdoor arena, a sensory trail system, and pastures that accommodate the herd of 26 specially chosen and trained therapy horses. Usually, equestrian facilities of this caliber are run by wealth, power and profits, and are fiscally based upon client success on competitive show circuits. In contrast, the High Hopes facility is owned by the non-profit organization that runs it, existing with a twofold mission to provide the benefits of therapeutic horsemanship to people with physical, cognitive or emotional special needs and to provide training and education to individuals working in the field of therapeutic horsemanship.
At tonight’s volunteer training, we sit in a classroom that has windows looking into the indoor arena, where we can see riders, some with obvious physical or cognitive disabilities, successfully steering their horses through an obstacle course, working with volunteer support. When the lecture portion of the volunteer training begins, I find it difficult to turn away from the arena view. I listen distractedly as Laura explains that the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH Intl.) is the membership organization through which she and the other instructors at High Hopes are certified. According to Laura, PATH Intl. has existed since 1969 and High Hopes has held a distinction known as Premier Accredited Center since 1979, making it one of the most well-established therapeutic horsemanship programs in the United States.
Then Laura asks our group of prospective volunteers how many of us have ever experienced a bond with an animal or ridden a horse. Most people in the room raise their hands. “So,” she asks the room. “What do you think the benefits of therapeutic horsemanship might be for people with special needs? You’ve obviously got some insight as a group.”
Words to describe horses and horseback riding fill the room: independence, powerful, non-judgmental, good exercise. Laura applauds our responses, then adds that the horse’s movement is uniquely therapeutic and motivating for certain populations served. “For people with sensory integration issues, common among those with autism, riding a horse can provide much needed sensory input that we can control and adjust by modifying the horse’s gait. This often calms the sensory system, making it possible for the rider with autism to work on learning goals. Likewise, the horse’s movement is good for people with physical disabilities, such as cerebral palsy or multiple sclerosis. The horse’s walk moves a mounted rider’s pelvis in a way that mimics a typical human gait, which builds strength, normalizes muscle tone and increases mobility. There’s a lot of good that comes from this activity.”
“Something about the outside of a horse that’s good for the inside of a man,” quips a heavyset older gentleman who wears a cowboy hat, sitting in the front row. This oft-quoted line is one I’m familiar with, and I believe is attributed to Winston Churchill. Around the room, a few people nod, a teen rolls his eyes. Laura clears her throat and seems ready to return to her Power Point presentation.
Horses are authentic, I think. Authentic, authentic, authentic. That’s why I’m here, I realize. My life is filled with fear, grief and disappointment; my own soul feels hidden, even from me. But horses, horses are authentic. It seems like the one truth I can remember knowing – pre-grief – and it gives me hope. Some faint memory tells me horses might help, even after many years of not having them in my life.
Across the room, there’s a short woman in her fifties, wearing a shiny, vinyl jacket that has a horse head appliqué and her name, Josie, embroidered on the lapel in faded cursive. Josie has a head of wild curls and she twists her small mouth into a half-smile. “They’re good for you all right,” she says. “Just the smell of horse poop always does it for me.”
I smile and nod at her comment, which I relate to, and try to make eye contact but she does not return my glance. Josie snorts and there’s something horse-like about it. Horse people, I remind myself. I catch my breath – feel, suddenly, at home.
Part of me has always been drawn to the thin layer of dust that settles over one’s skin, clothes and hair – barn dust. It comes from the dirt the horses drag in on their coats and from the pine shavings on which they lie down at night. It comes from the clean hay stored above. Faintly, the scent of sweat (horse and human) and leather tack. The dust – dry and sneeze inducing – ordinary barn dust, has coated most of the better moments of my life. The smell of it brings me present.
In the arena at High Hopes, I practice side-walking, which is a volunteer role where one walks beside a rider, providing direction and light physical support if needed. Because I have prior horse experience, I also train as a horse leader, a role which would require that I groom, tack and then handle the horse while a rider with special needs participates in class. I’m excited as this second role will give me direct access to horses for the first time in years. At the end of the training, Laura shows those of us who have trained as horse leaders the turnout board and describes how to bring the horses out to pasture according to High Hopes guidelines. The board, which features names and pictures of each horse, is color coded, as are the horses’ pastures, helping to ensure that volunteers turn horses out in the correct place after class. The entire facility is exquisitely organized, designed to make it easy and peaceful for hundreds of volunteers to come through each week and handle the herd with as much independence as possible.
The High Hopes herd is fortunate enough to live outside in expansive pastures with gigantic run in sheds. This is a natural way for horses to live as they can move around at will, graze continually and interact freely with other herd members. “This set-up,” Laura explains, “Is a give-back to our wonderful therapy horses. For two hours a day, five days a week, they serve our riders, but the rest of the time, they get to just live out and be horses.” As she speaks, the sky opens up with thunder and lightning. Through the sudden rain, I can see the silhouettes of horses standing peacefully in their sheds, out of the downpour, protected by both the shelters and their pasture mates’ nearness. The sun shines on, even as it rains and thunders, a brave August sky. Rainbow-inducing. All at once, the world feels violent and fresh and true.
Attending the volunteer training at High Hopes Therapeutic Riding wasn’t just a whim. It was what I did because I had to do something. For years, I had been caught in the grief of divorce, the loss of a step-child who I love and cared for as my own. I had met and married my first husband at the age of 23, sponsoring his immigration to the U.S. as well as that of his then four year-old daughter. Five years after we married, my ex had his permanent US Green Card and I filed for divorce, knowing our marriage was beyond salvation. Shortly before beginning divorce proceedings, I learned about thousands upon thousands of credit card debt that I hadn’t known existed. I also learned our home was in foreclosure. Although the debt had been run up behind my back, and carefully concealed, it fell mainly to me in our divorce settlement because by that time, I was employed, had an advanced degree and technically didn’t have a child.
Technically is a key word, though. During my six year relationship with my ex-husband, his daughter from a previous marriage had become the center of my life. For most of those years, I was my step-daughter’s primary caregiver, despite not having a biological or legal connection. During the divorce, I would learn that step-parents have no legal rights to see, know or contact the children we have parented. Although we’d never taken the legal step of adoption, I had, perhaps naively, considered this child my daughter in every way, so very completely. I was, and still am, so intensely proud of her. During the time I was married, I had considered caring for, guiding and protecting this child to be my main purpose and responsibility in life. I was “Mom.”
Divorced and suddenly separated from my step-daughter, the anxiety in which I’d been treading water for years grew violent – a whirlpool that overtook my entire existence, my whole consciousness. I saw myself as a complete failure in life: a financial failure; a professional bore; a person unable to trust, love or be trusted; and worst of all, I saw myself as someone who had hurt the person – the child – I loved best in the entire world.
Then, grief, layered, made me stop wanting to love – the scariest part.
A week after the volunteer training, I find myself leading horses in therapeutic riding lessons at High Hopes. In the first class, I lead Petra, a Norwegian Fjord pony, for a class taught by Kitty Stalsburg, a PATH International Master Level Instructor and the Executive Director at High Hopes. As I will learn over the coming weeks, Kitty is the heart and soul of High Hopes. Having served as the Program Director for more than twenty years, Kitty was instrumental in designing the current facility; growing the program to serve riders with diverse physical, cognitive and emotional needs; building the reputation of the facility within the local horse community and the national and international field of therapeutic horsemanship. Though I don’t know any of this at the time, I admire Kitty, with her thick braid of brown hair and deep laugh lines, from the moment I meet her. Here is a true New England horsewoman, frank and direct, bustling about the barn in her riding breeches, even as she is responsible for an executive role at this well-established and obviously impeccably run non-profit organization.
The class Kitty teaches that day is for a group of preschoolers with special needs who are excited and perhaps a little anxious to be on horseback for the first time; the ponies all wear fleece bareback pads to allow these riders the maximum benefit from the horse’s movement and warmth. The lesson involves the riders pointing left and right as they ride at a walk through a line of evenly spaced orange utility cones, a side-walker on each side should a rider lose his or her balance or need emotional or directional support. The riders are encouraged to use the voice commands “walk on,” “whoa” and “trot” to communicate with their horses. They work on an exercise called “apple picking” where they reach way up above their heads to pick imaginary apples for their horses, a creative activity that stretches their core muscles and challenges their balance. I smile when one of the children says, “I love Petra. She’s my girl.” The children ride in 30 minute rotations, so Petra, our team of side-walkers and I serve two children that morning.
Petra is sweet and gentle from the moment I enter her stall until her last rider dismounts. After his ride, the second student lingers with his volunteer, patting the pony’s shoulder. Petra happens to shake her head at a fly. And when her very ample forelock shakes away from her face, the little rider gasps. “Look,” he says, pointing, amazement all over his face. “She has eyes!” I will never forget the sweetness of his surprise, the happiness of sharing a moment of wonder with him.
My next class that first day is a little more challenging. I am leading for a more independent rider – Jenny, a blond haired girl about ten who doesn’t need a side-walker. She rides Filly, an Arabian mare who is nearing the end of a long career at High Hopes. The rider is nervous and somewhat resistant. “I have a headache,” Jenny complains, and I remember considering how/when/ if I should pass that information on to Marie, the Instructor-in-Training who stands a little awkwardly in the center of the ring and relays directions that we try to follow. Kristin Mason, the supervising PATH Intl. Advanced Instructor, stands beside the Instructor in Training, quietly supporting her teaching efforts.
Before I find the moment to speak up about Jenny’s headache, she gets distracted by the Instructor in Training’s direction. “At the letter F,” Marie calls, referring to a dressage letter on the arena wall, “Ask Filly to T-ROTTT!” (I am surprised when Jenny instantly stops complaining about not feeling well. It’s amazing how trotting cures headaches.)
But then our next problem begins. The rider can’t get Filly to trot. And, although Filly is still attached to the lead line, neither can I. When I tug more emphatically on the lead line, Filly gives us a half-hearted extended walk, but that seems to be all she is willing to give us.
“Eyes up!” calls a tall, red-haired instructor who has entered the arena without me noticing. I recognize Lauren Fitzgerald, who was introduced to us at the volunteer training as the instructor responsible for training the therapy horses. Now, she tries to help Jenny and me to manage Filly. “Look where you’re going and don’t pull on her,” she says in a definite, confident voice. I realize Lauren is addressing me, more than the rider. “Let Filly do her job – she knows it!” Great, I remember thinking: over ten years of horse ownership, six years of Pony Club, and a brief stint as an Equine Science major and apparently I can’t even get out of the way to let an aging therapy horse do her job. Ugh.
Eventually, the rider and I prevail and Filly trots half-heartedly down a long side of the arena. “Good!” Lauren calls. “That’s it!” I recognize a hint of a New Jersey accent in her brassy arena voice. My rider posts – rising up and down in sync with the two beat rhythm of the horse’s trot – which earns high praise from the Instructor-in-Training. I turn around to high-five my rider and Kristin Mason quickly reminds me to keep both my hands securely on Filly’s lead rope. “Oh, right, sorry!” I remember calling back.
My rider says quietly, “It’s okay, you didn’t know.” Her words make us allies.
“Thanks, Jenny,” I say, and we smile at each other. I wonder for a moment about what Jenny’s diagnosis might be. Due to High Hopes’ confidentiality policy, I will not be told the specifics. Before the class began, Kristen Mason informed me that Jenny would need me to provide encouragement but that basically she was high-functioning and should be able to follow the Instructor in Training’s directions. As the moment passes, I realize that the specifics of Jenny’s diagnosis don’t matter to me. I have actually enjoyed Jenny’s company as well as that of the younger riders in Kitty’s earlier class. I also realize that it is the first time since losing the relationship with my step-daughter that I’ve enjoyed the company of children, that looking into Jenny’s eyes hasn’t broken my heart or made me think instantly of my step-daughter, despite the fact that they are fairly close in age and share a precocious smile and bright blond hair. I realize, with a deep and sorry pang of mixed emotions, that it might be possible for me to enjoy being around children again, to heal just a little. Somehow, the day with horses has facilitated a kind of peace that in my intense grief, I had never expected to know again.
When I leave High Hopes after that first day of volunteering, I’m not sure how I feel about it. Volunteering as a horse leader is more challenging and complicated than I expected. I remember driving north, towards home in Rhode Island, and considering whether or not I should go back the following week or quit. Maybe, I actually have mixed feelings about healing, about whether I want to let go of grief which, painfully as it is, keeps thoughts of my step-daughter at the forefront of my mind, memories of her so close to the center of my being. Even minor happiness feels confusing, undeserved.
Driving home, I consider all this, taking a deep breath of the hay/ fly-spray/ barn dust smell that lingers in my hair. I can’t help knowing that this smell is good for me, that I will go back for more. Just then, I believe I remember, faintly, who I am.