In March, 1999, Andi Reed, the Director of Camping and Respite for Easter Seal Camp West, stopped by to ask how to properly give rides for the campers at the Easter Seal camp located only a few miles away. When I said, "I can do that," she readily agreed, and I wondered what I'd gotten myself into.
I have a double major in Psychology and Education from Mt. Holyoke College in Massachusetts and have been training horses and riders for 13 years, first on the East Coast and then in Western Washington on the Key Peninsula west of Tacoma. Having already used my Curlies for vaulting, Search and Rescue, and riding lessons at all skill levels, I knew their calm temperament and high intelligence would make them perfect for dealing with disabled adults and children, or "campers" as they are called when attending Easter Seal Camp West.
With Tames Alan of Celtic Curlies, a neighbor and fellow Curly breeder, as my senior assistant, and Cecilia Sauter, Catherine Van Tuyl, and Kara Walsh, three teen assistants, I loaded Yellow Storm (ABC #S-495), Copper Billi (ABC #P-770F), and Silver Buddha, an old-style Morgan so calm the other horses have made him an honorary Curly, then drove the five miles to the camp for our first practice session. We brought the horses into the arena and introduced them to a few campers, some in wheelchairs. As expected, the horses weren't fazed a bit. Storm in particular seemed to like wheelchairs.
With one assistant taking the part of a camper, we practiced helping campers mount and dismount. Then we showed the camp staff how to walk alongside to provide support for a disabled rider while one of us led the horse at a slow walk. We laid out a short obstacle course where the campers could drop a ball into a basket, then a hoop over a pole, then weave around five poles, do a small circle, and go over some "jumps" (poles laid on the ground). Each camper would be led through the course twice, riding for about five minutes.
We gave rides on ten days between June 27 to August 29, usually on weekends. Our first campers were children, approximately 24 a day, and we slowly moved to adults by the end of the summer as the camp population changed. In all, we gave rides to over 300 people with physical or mental disabilities, including deafness autism, seizures, or blindness. They went up the ramp to the mountain area in a variety or ways--on foot unassisted, using walkers or canes, or in wheelchairs. Almost all had to be helped in and out of the saddle, and some needed to be lifted bodily and set in place, then supported by the camp staff, because they had little or no trunk support of their own. The horses took it all calmly, even when campers waved their arms, shouted with excitement, or bounced up and down, yelling, "Hi-yo, Silver!"
The horses seemed to know instinctively that their riders needed special care. One day just after Billi was mounted by a camper, she started twitching and squirming as if something was terribly wrong. We quickly got the camper dismounted while Billi stood there, trembling and shaking in distress. Once her rider was safe, she ran out of the mounting area pursued by a swarm of bees! There was a beehive under the ramp, and something had angered them enough to swarm. To Billi's credit, she didn't try to run until her rider was off. We got rid of the bees with a poison spray and continued riding.
After finishing the final session on August 29, Tames and I loaded the horses and headed home for the last time. As we pulled out, I took with me the memory of the joy on the campers' faces as they rode around the arena and experienced the truth of Helen Thompson's famous words:
"In riding a horse we borrow freedom."