We have a very special guest author for this month’s blog post! Nancy, a Renew student, recently sat down to write a short piece and was brave enough to share her journey with the Renew family. Thank you for sharing your experience with us, Nancy!
When I first came to Renew, I wanted to volunteer. At the first training session, I was impressed with the thoroughness and professionalism of the staff, in addition to the beauty and atmosphere of the farmhouse, barn, arena, the surrounding land and, of course, the horses. We learned that day not only about what volunteers do at Renew, but also about the conformation of the horse and how to tell if a horse is suited to the needs of various kinds of riders with disabilities. Further training sessions promised to teach us even more. I was curious and anxious to learn. Unfortunately, a series of injuries (in addition to the ones I already had) prevented me from continuing. A hip injury prevented me from walking well enough to be a sidewalker or to lead horses. Old rotator cuff injuries kept me from being able to reach up with my arms to groom or put a bridle on. Further, I was recovering from being misdiagnosed with Bipolar and given a drug that had caused me to lose my short-term memory. I was off the drug and doing better, but still had some brain fog and trouble remembering names and dates. My self-esteem had plummeted to an all-time low, and with it my confidence and initiative. I didn’t care about much of anything and felt overwhelmed. Only my love of horses was getting through, calling me to come back, but it seemed impossible.
I had been riding since I was 12, taught riding lessons at my college, and later owned a wonderful advanced dressage horse, a white 17 hand Trakehner / Thoroughbred cross, who was given to me because he had navicular disease. He died several years ago, unable to support his weight any longer, but not before we had many happy years together. Then, after the detached rotator cuff, my doctor told me that I should never ride again, because a sudden jerk would tear the tendon off again and I would lose the use of my arm. With physical therapy, I got stronger, but I sold my beloved saddle and all my horse gear, knowing how easy it would be to have my arm jerked working with horses. I have always fought a battle with clinical depression, but with medications I have handled it well, had a career as a literature professor, and raised a family. Losing my horse Maxim, though, was an ache that wouldn’t go away. Not being able to ride made it worse. In the interim, I lost my beloved father and later experienced a trauma that left me with PTSD. Life was hard. really hard.
I asked Melissa Conner, the Executive Director, if I might be able to “just get on a horse again and walk” safely. That was my entire dream then. She encouraged me to apply, but despite a recent weight loss of over 80 pounds, I was still above the 200-pound weight limit. I was close, though, and the prospect of being with horses gave me the courage to keep trying. Then someone donated a Percheron, Doll, who could carry my weight, and I was able to begin lessons. On the first day I was absolutely terrified that something would happen to make me fall, but I wanted to ride so badly I forged ahead anyway. The staff was caring and patient. They knew about the injuries and my depression. They offered me all the time and patience in the world until I gradually got going.
There was a difficult period after that. My muscles were completely weak and after every lesson the restless legs and cramps I had at night were worse. The physical therapist encouraged me to keep trying because I needed to develop those muscles again if I were to have any quality of life. In fact, she said that I would not live as long if I didn’t. The first weeks were painful, but possible. I was frustrated, being older (OK, old), and struggling to accept that some of my limitations were permanent. I could no longer ride as comfortably or confidently as I used to. Many days I wanted to quit but never said it out loud to anyone, and the horse-crazy little girl inside me who had wanted to ride more than anything simply would not let me give up. The staff kept encouraging me and never asked me to do anything that harmed my body or mind. Their training in disabilities and mental health was obviously extensive, and I felt safe. I was safe. Then one day Doll decided to shy at the gate, swinging hard several feet to one side. To my astonishment, my seat never left the saddle and I knew exactly what to do to make her move ahead straight again right away. There was cell memory there, and years of experience. My confidence soared. Doll and I started to figure each other out and riding became more fun again.
One day Melissa told me that someone had donated a Percheron / Thoroughbred cross, Lady, who was retired from a career in eventing, and that I could try riding her. Before I rode her, I had a little private talk with her while I walked her in the arena, explaining how much I needed her help, and asked her to please try. I sent up a prayer, too, asking for hope and healing. The first day I rode Lady, I knew we were right for each other. Everything just clicked. She was so intelligent, responsive and willing. She seemed to know everything I asked her, even if I didn’t ask correctly because I had forgotten or didn’t have the strength. I felt like I was really riding again.
Over the course of several weeks, I was able to sustain a 2-point position for longer and my legs got stronger. Melissa and Shaina knew how to help me build up those weak muscles again and start to regain some core strength. They were infinitely patient and careful to care for the well-being of both me and the horse. Gradually, I could trot more for short distances, then longer. During one lesson I suddenly got teary because I was just so grateful to be riding again, and because Lady was so wonderful. Last week before riding, I tripped in the garage and pulled a muscle, so when I rode my left leg was very weak, almost completely ineffective. Lady kept turning an ear back towards me as if to ask, “What do you want? I’m not sure.” When I couldn’t apply my inside leg to bend her around the corner and she did that, I tapped gently with the inside of my ankle. She started to bend, as if to say, “Oh, I get it now!” I felt like she wanted to do well, and that it felt familiar and fun for her, too. After the lesson I dismounted and couldn’t walk her back, so a volunteer took her. Lady walked about 15 feet, stopped, and turned around to stare at me. When our eyes met, I swear she was wondering if I were alright, and asking, “Why aren’t you coming back with me?” My heart literally filled with joy. I never thought I would have a real bond with a horse again, yet here she was obviously wondering and caring about me. I was pretty sure of it, because I knew the feeling from my horse who was a big communicator.
I had purchased my Stuebben hunt saddle back earlier from the woman who bought it, just to own it again. It was Maxim’s saddle and fit me like a glove. If I couldn’t have him, I could at least smell the leather and have my memories. This one had special meaning because I had saved for it for so long. It didn’t fit Doll, but it does fit Lady so at today’s lesson I was literally back in the saddle again. I posted all the way around the arena for the first time without getting tired or having any pain. I felt the special bond again between a happy horse and a happy rider. I realized that I have hope again. Horses are my greatest passion and longest memory, so being with them has helped me to feel whole, like there is consistency and unity in who I am and for my entire, long life. Before, I was feeling lost in space with little direction. Now I am adjusting to the beginning of old age better, accepting my limitations, and knowing that there is still much more in store for me in the future, even with horses—especially with horses. Without Renew Therapeutic Riding Center, none of this could have happened. I am very, very grateful to everyone who supports it in every way – thank you.
The time I have spent at Renew has brough tremendous healing. Physically, my body has gotten stronger and my health has improved. Mentally, I am filled with familiar feelings of being at the barn, among friends and with horses—my happy place for my whole life. Lessons are improving my concentration and endurance in every way. Being with other people who accept me and care about me genuinely and unconditionally has helped my self-esteem and enabled me to stop being so critical of myself. Helping others by encouraging them, sharing books and ideas, and visiting socially has drawn me out of the shell of isolation I was in. I am excitedly planning to make Renaissance horse blankets for Doll and Lady, with velvet and a coat of arms, and dresses for me and the other rider for an event in the fall. (It remains to convince Doll and Lady that they can be friends!) Finally, seeing the determination and courage of other riders, mostly children, with far more limiting physical disabilities than mine has been humbling in a good way and deeply inspiring. We are all in this life together and being together at Renew seems to give us all courage in community. I am grateful to be a part of it. I hope that someday I will be strong enough to volunteer as well. I want to be part of the Renew family for a long time to come.
We are pleased to welcome Ellis Stich to Renew’s staff! Ellis is joining as the Equine Coordinator, and will be responsible for overseeing the overall health and well-being of the Renew horses. Ellis is not new to Renew, as he has been a long time volunteer and most recently an Instructor-in-Training having acquired his Certified Therapeutic Riding Instructor credentials in February. As a lifelong horse lover, Ellis brings a variety of experiences to the position, as well as a deep commitment to the mission and vision of Renew. Please extend a warm welcome to Ellis when you see him around the barn in the upcoming days.