Sunday, March 25, 2012

Blessi at Corey's Day on the Farm

This year, Blessi, and I had the most awesome experience in all of the seven years of our partnership. I was close to tears several times. We participated in Corey’s Day at the Farm for the first time. Coleta and Nick Corey of Silverdale, WA have a special needs son Danny. In 1968, Danny took some puppies to his class for show and tell. Many of his classmates were unfamiliar with puppies so Coletta and Nick invited the class of 26 to their farm to ride ponies. For over 40 years, the family has continued to expand the program so that today over 1000 special needs children plus their parents and grandparents come to the Kitsap County Fairgrounds to pet the goats and cows, take wagon rides pulled by tractor or draft horses, have lunch and popcorn, rope pretend cows, square dance, and so much more. Up to 200 people volunteer to help.

The heart of the event remains the horse rides so Blessi and I decided to see if we could help. The kids who attend have special needs ranging from autism to vision and hearing impairment to physical disabilities. Really, I had no idea what this would entail—especially the dreaded “chute.”
Stage 1--help child dismount
Getting a child from a wheelchair or a physically handicapped child on a horse requires a special set-up—the chute. At the end of the ride, the horse has to take the child into the chute. The chute goes round a curve to the unloading platform which is about two feet high and about 10 by 10 feet square.
Stage 2 Help another child into the saddle
Several people are there to help the child off the horse. The horse is then led through the chute to the loading platform, which is about 5 feet in the air so that several adult volunteers can help the child down onto the horse. During the loading and unloading process the horse must stand perfectly with all the volunteers helping an often unbalanced child. Once in the queue, the horse cannot panic since there may be a horse ahead and behind it in the chute. And let’s not forget all the flashes going off.

Stage 3 Get two walkers to help support the child
The horse/leader/child grouping also picks up one to two spotters to help the child balance on the horse. The entire group makes a circuit around the arena and the process repeats itself. For children who are very scared or very unsteady a 4-H volunteer hops in the saddle and holds the child or sits behind the saddle and holds the child.

And all of this occurs in the chaos of the fairground-- outside the arena are tractor rides, milling crowds, strange horses walking around, etc. Most of the horses—mainly quarter horses and paints-- have been working at this event for several years. They are absolute saints to tote a child who may kick suddenly, make sudden hand motions, be very unbalanced, or suddenly cry.
Other activities around the riding area

The only horse misbehavior that I know of happened to the adults who loaded children in the pony pasture (as opposed to the large horse arena) who got nipped several times by the ponies, who declined to bite the children.

Blessi was one of the first-time horses. I arrived early to get him used to the set up. I did not chunk this training well but Blessi is of a forgiving nature and a quick study. Luckily there were lots of 4-H volunteers who were willing to play the role of special needs child—both on the platform and in the saddle. It took about 20 minutes and several circuits with 4-H volunteers before I felt Blessi was ready to give his first real ride. The final training step was when a 4-Her fed Blessi her breath mints from the level of the platform. (Note—many of the first time horses could not cope with dreaded chute and went back to their trailers or stalls for the rest of the day). As soon as that first child was lowered into the saddle, Blessi seemed to relax even more. It was almost as if he understood the reason for the platform. Blessi did such a good job that he got promoted to the pony pasture in the afternoon (don’t tell FEIF the international organization for the Icelandic “horse”). The smaller children are even more likely to make sudden movements. Oh, and Blessi is Icelandic. He was really good at the “I’m a relaxed pony, my head is going down, look there is grass” grass snatching trick.

Stage 4 Return to chute
Here are just some of my memories from this afternoon. I have changed the names.

  • Anna, with limited leg movement, taking her first horse ride with a smile that just got bigger and bigger as the ride went on
  • Jeffrey who got on Blessi and was so excited he shouted “Yi Haa, I’m a cowboy” and kicked Blessi in the sides
  • Desi who was in sixth grade and just so sad because she had been coming to Corey’s Day on the Farm for six years and, since there is an age limit, could not come back as a seventh grader
  • Jacob, who was about four and had to be carried by a 4-H rider. He started off the ride crying but within 10 steps he started to sing the words to his own nonsense song, a song that lasted to the end of the ride
  • An unknown boy who would not talk or look at us. However, he spent most of the ride hugging or petting Blessi’s withers
  • Davie who kept getting in line and arranging his position in line so that he could ride Blessi five times
  • And most of all the smiles, smiles, smiles of happy children and parents
I also have a confession to make about Blessi. Sometimes you find out something about your horse that makes you ashamed. After a grass break, I was walking Blessi back to the arena. Parents pushing a child in a type of stroller/wheelchair asked if their son, who looked about 5, could meet Blessi. I led Blessi over and he promptly lowered his head to greet the child at his level. The child’s legs were covered with a grass green blanket. After greeting the boy, Blessi gently took the blanket in his mouth and tried to remove it. The kid smiled and his parents laughed and laughed. The parents asked if Blessi would re-stage the event for photos—which Blessi was happy to do. So here is my confession: MY HORSE STEALS BLANKETS FROM SPECIAL NEEDS CHILDREN.

So humor aside, there are many volunteer positions to help with therapeutic riding –even if one does not have a suitable horse. It is an amazing and emotionally rewarding activity.

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