While raising my ten-year-old child, Katie, who has profound mental retardation, my family experienced many encounters with the two-legged cherubic kind — or what I like to think of as earthly manifestations of guardian angels. What I didn’t expect to come across was one with four hooves and a whinny who tucked his Pegasus-sized wings beneath his saddle.

Butch, a retired chestnut gelding, standing about 14 hands high, was one of the horses at SMaRT, the Snow Mountain Ranch Therapeutic Riding Program at the YMCA of the Rockies in Fraser, Colorado, where I took Katie for therapeutic riding.

By the time midsummer 1997 came around, Butch and my daughter, Katie, had developed an unspoken understanding, a trust between rider and provider.

Katie’s Breakthrough
At the beginning of one therapy session, I brought Katie to the base of the wooden mounting ramp. Off in the pine-framed meadow, Rose, the program director, led Butch by the reins. Her golden hair lassoed into a ponytail, Rose led a sun-ripened band of three volunteers who trailed behind Katie and Butch. Katie didn’t look directly at any of them. She tipped her head. Using her peripheral vision to briefly glance in their direction, Katie made a guttural note of excited anticipation — her version of language. I held on to Katie’s arm as she circled and circled in a jig, similar to what she does when waiting for her school bus to pick her up.

Once Butch was safely between the mounting platform and another elevated wooden base, he stood still and patiently re-mained with his colleagues. Rose took my daughter up the ramp and guided Katie’s hands to the saddle horn. She lifted Katie’s right leg over the saddle. A second volunteer, standing on the platform across from Rose, put Katie’s foot into a stirrup. When Katie was centered, Rose said, “Katie, tell Butch to walk on.”

Katie smiled, unresponsive to Rose’s request. Aside from various pitches of sound indicating her excitement or discomfort, Katie’s only other form of expressing herself was through an adapted sign language. This was limited to “eat,” “drink,” and occasionally “more,” along with a turn away of her head for “no.” We all waited for any kind of response.

Rose repeated the prompt. Katie waited for something to happen, seemingly content just to sit on Butch. Rose waited and repeated the verbal cue a third time. While we listened for any kind of sound from my daughter, the volunteers watched her feet for a slight kicking movement, another way a nonverbal rider could tell Butch she was ready to go.

Finally a volunteer on each side of the horse lifted Katie’s feet to help her tap Butch’s flanks. Rose spoke for Katie and cheerfully said, “Walk on,” and they all headed toward the corral.

Katie’s usually curved, slumped posture straightened. She lifted her head and beamed a smile of pride to the audience — me. I swallowed her joy in a lump and claimed it for my own. Katie has had little to say in her own life, and she attempts whatever is asked of her. In spite of significant challenges, she is completely trusting and seems at peace with her circumstances. In that moment I filled with admiration at the way she sat upon Butch. My daughter, my Katie, my Dale Evans.

Engaged in fun and motivated by Butch, Katie didn’t recognize that she had been positioned on him to achieve therapeutic goals. They were goals that would help her to walk with more stability, sit and stand with a stronger spine, and engage in developing communication. The fact that the assisted motion of mounting him was the same for getting into the bathtub at home — a specific life skill — was an added bonus. Therapy was boring. Butch was inspiring.

After he walked in the corral, Butch matched his gait to the stride of the volunteer holding his lead rope. The other two volunteers, who were walking on either side for the rider’s safety, helped Katie pull back slightly on the reins to stop Butch. They added a “whoa” for her. They handed Katie a plastic ring and guided her hands to drop the ring over a fence post. Next, they wove their path around barrels, stepped over a row of logs, and even turned Katie around to ride Butch backward. Butch was in sync through it all, even to the point of helping to right his rider by giving a little bump of his bum when she started to slide out of position. To offer Katie and Butch a change of scenery, they all headed out to a trail in the woods.

At the end of nearly an hour riding backward, forward, and sideways, Katie’s stamina faded. She still smiled but was physically exhausted. As they walked back toward me, before they had even reached a halt, Rose said to me, “Katie said, ‘Walk on.’”

“She did?” I asked, a tone of disbelief in my voice.

Katie didn’t talk. Ever.

After nine and a half years of occupational therapy, physical therapy, and speech therapy, none of her human therapists had been able to stimulate Katie’s language. And none of those synthetic bolsters, dangling net swings, or cause-and-effect toys, which when poked, shaken, or rolled rewarded the effort with a sound, a light, or other stimulus, had prompted any language. In fact, after years of stomped hopes and dreams with words such as, “Maybe when she’s three, she’ll be able...,” “When she’s five, eight, ten...,” I’d learned to lower my expectations. The fighting with our city and school district for inclusive activities and appropriate services had gotten to me. The words, “Jodi, you can’t expect miracles,” spoken by a school administrator, had begun to resonate. I’d become half empty. I’d become a mother who thinks of her child, “She can’t do that.”

Nevertheless, there is something ethereal in therapeutic horseback riding. In spite of her disabilities, Katie was participating in an activity some city slickers find terrifying. She had placed all her trust, vulnerability, and ability in Butch’s care without a moment’s hesitation.

That very next week on the mounting ramp Rose again told Katie, “Tell Butch to walk on.” I could see Butch’s left brown eye. His ear twitched backward. I thought I recognized an expression from him of anticipation, of hope.

Then we all heard it — the w and k sounds were absent. There was no lip closure, but the rhythm and inflection was unmistakable. She said, “Ahh, ann.” Butch gently began to walk. He’d heard it. I don’t think he ever doubted that he would.

At the end of the session that day, after his biscuit and some TLC, I watched a volunteer lead Butch back into the corral with the rest of the horses. Butch had become the horse who taught me to look up again, who taught me to raise my expectations, to have a little more faith in my daughter’s unknown capabilities and future. Butch is the horse who taught me that miracles can happen 14 hands high above the corral dust.

Butch’s belief in Katie brought about a miracle for Jodi to witness. How have horses or other animals listened to your deepest longings and heard what no one else could hear?

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