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The Gathering Place

November 11, 2013

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Every time I see this sign, I smile and think, All unstable traffic, too? :). This is our therapeutic riding story.

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This is the view that greets me two or three days a week when I turn into The Gathering Place, a stable in Stillwater, Minnesota, where Melanie Nix and friends offer horse back riding to people of all abilities. Melanie specializes in therapeutic riding for children with special needs. The other services she offers, like horse boarding and riding lessons, help support her therapeutic riding program.

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Joy was this big — 13 lbs. at 15 months –the first time a therapist enthused about the possibility of therapeutic riding in her future. Joy was fully supported by the chair so you can’t tell that at this point (three months home from a loving year-long foster care placement in South Korea) she could not yet roll over and could barely hold up her head. Joy is a twin, born at 26 weeks, one pound at birth. She has quadriplegic cerebral palsy with mixed tone, GMFCS Level IV.

Learning to sit up took  Joy three more years, until she was four and a half. Being able to sit well enough to sit on a horse took two more years.

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In the mean time, Faith, Joy’s big sister, fell in love with horses. It took me a full year –and several good talkings-to from a friend who is a horse enthusiast –to understand that Faith wasn’t just going through a pre-teen phase where Horses were the next Little House on the Prairie or Fairies.

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No. Somewhere deep in our gene pool, my friend counseled, we must have a Horsey ancestor; Faith’s horse thing was the real deal.  So we signed Faith up for beginning riding lessons at a local stable, the only place we’d heard of near us where kids could learn to ride. After a year of large-group lessons, Faith was hooked.

That same year, when she turned 13, Faith declared she would heretofore be known as Fate :).

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About the same time, Joy finally developed the core strength to sit up without always needing two hands for full support. This is a photo from last summer. Her posture is not great. But this is 100% her own work sitting on a rock with no support under her feet — a very challenging seat for her. Joy’s lead physical therapist agreed she was ready to try riding.

Melanie would have probably told me she was ready for riding sooner because riding is a fabulous way to develop core strength as you will see in the photos below. But I hadn’t met Melanie yet :).

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This was Joy’s very first time on a horse, at The Gathering Place, in August 2013. Fate is leading. In this close up of the same photo,

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you can see that Joy’s posture isn’t much different from sitting on the rock. Except she’s leaning into Melanie’s hand for support. And the horse isn’t even moving. In the beginning, Joy could tolerate five minutes sitting upright with maximal support on a slowly walking horse. Then she spent the rest of her session laying over the saddle with her head cradled on Melanie’s arm, like this:

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The photo above was her third lesson. Each week, Joy added several minutes to her time sitting upright, and as her core strength developed, her need for head support decreased, too:

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Now, after ten weeks of riding once per week, Joy spends all of her session –30-35 minutes –sitting on a moving horse.

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You can see how much Joy enjoys riding! If this came with sound, you’d hear a running horse monologue of clicking, whinnying, and random  horse lines she has memorized from books, “Next stop is the riding stable; Horses gallop strong and able!” (from Stephanie Calmison’s Engine Engine Number Nine) and “There was a great big horse and a very little horse,” (From Margaret Wise Brown’s Big Red Barn.)

Maybe most significantly, riding has shown us that Joy has the ability to recall and remember.

Despite her ability to understand us –for years now, we’ve had to spell things like W-A-L-K or B-A-T-H unless we are prepared to do it right away or she fusses at having to wait –and despite her ability to recite and sing dozens of books and songs, Joy has very little ability to reliably, meaningfully express herself outside carefully set up contexts.

Out of the blue she may randomly volunteer a spot-on observation like she did yesterday in the bathtub, “The soap is making bubbles  in the water!” Or in a specific, patterned, context like at the snack table at school, shown popcorn, she may request, “I want popcorn!”

Yet she’s never been playing and said she was thirsty, or been paging through a book and asked for snack. At home, she’s never told me about anything that happened at school, even if I pull artwork out of her back pack and prompt her with simple questions about her work. Those things require Joy thinking and speaking out of the context she requires for support.

But the morning after I took the photos of Joy riding in the green shirt, Joy and Fate and I were sitting at the breakfast table. It was a Saturday. Fate shared that she was going to the stable later to go riding and hoped she’d get to ride Boyfriend, the horse Joy had ridden for the first time the day before.

Joy’s face lit up. “I am riding!” she said.

My first thought: Joy misunderstands; she thinks she gets to ride today.

Joy continued, “This horse is BIG! This horse is BROWN. This horse lives in a barn. This horse lives at the farm. Neigh! says the horse. Neigh! Neigh! I am riding this horse.”

Fate looked at me. “Joy is remembering riding Boyfriend?!”

Joy was remembering, even though her spontaneous vocabulary apparently does not yet contain the past tense. Boyfriend does not literally live in the barn. But as he’s always standing in the barn tacked up when we arrive, Joy doesn’t know he lives outside. Before that day, most of Joy’s lessons had been on a roan pony. When Joy first mounted Boyfriend, she had observed, “This is a BIG horse!” Then, Joy identified his color by reciting, “Brown horse, brown horse, what do you see?”

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To commemorate that day, Fate later took this picture, answering, “I see a brown horse looking at me!” :).

So therapeutic riding is about much more than developing core strength. Despite their differences in age and ability, riding has given Fate –who takes private lessons with Melanie weekly –and Joy something they both love and share, and can even talk about. And when I can wrap my mind around the logistics of so many riders, I imagine riding is something Mercy and Hope and I will enjoy along with them.

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For now, it is wonderful that Fate can take, and will always have, the lead. Here Melanie is teaching Fate, who dreams of attending an equine college, the basics of physical therapy on horse back. (Fate isn’t merely holding Joy up. She is stretching her upper back and shoulders while Melanie stretches her outside leg, while the horse is walking.)

This week Joy got to experience her first trot with Fate riding behind her. Physically, it was as big a challenge as sitting on a moving horse three months ago. But Joy laughed and laughed, enjoying the speed and gait so much that I imagine by next summer she won’t look quite so much like a bobble-head doll in need of a stiffer neck spring!

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But as good as The Gathering Place has been for Fate and Joy (Mercy, above cuddles the barn cat), every day I am out there doing nothing more than enjoying my girls enjoying themselves, I am aware of the gift this is to me.

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The past eighteen months since my husband’s heart attack have been among the most stressful in my life. Until we started therapeutic riding, I didn’t know how badly I needed a place to get away, a place where I have so little on my to-do list that I have time to start seeing again

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the starkly gorgeous beauty God orchestrates every day in ordinary things like fence rails and tack rooms, and my children’s faces.

So in the end, I can’t tell you which of us benefits the most, the girls, or me. I’m just happy we’ve found The Gathering Place. If you want more information you can find Melanie at The Gathering Place Stables on Facebook.

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This is an unsolicited endorsement. I do not accept any invitations to endorse products or services.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. November 11, 2013 5:11 pm

    I love this!!

  2. Nora permalink
    November 11, 2013 6:27 pm

    Sitting up for the whole lesson and even trotting! I am so impressed by Joy’s progress! All these pictures are wonderful! Hope you all are well!

  3. mikeandkatie1 permalink
    November 11, 2013 10:04 pm

    Yes, the magic of horses. There is just something about horses.

    Katie

  4. barbershoppe permalink
    November 12, 2013 9:15 pm

    Wow… what a story. I love being a part of those moments when a child is finally processing something you’ve been waiting for them to understand. How beautiful this one has been and continues to be. I’m sure Bill Martin, Jr. and Eric Carle would appreciate this, too.

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