Wednesday, November 18, 2009

All Creatures Great and Small

The Lord God made them all.

It's ironic to me how much energy I spend trying to teach myself not to "sweat the small stuff," and yet it's the small stuff in life that, when noticed, can bring the sweetest moments to any day.

Take last night, for example. I've been volunteering for some time now at a therapeutic riding facility in Boyds, MD called Great and Small. I love this place. The folks in charge up there genuinely love kids and horses and want to make a difference in the lives of those usually forgotten. I think one of things that drew me to therapeutic riding at such an early age was the vast difference in attitude and approach between business barns and therapeutic barns. Honestly, with the snobbiness and selfishness that seems to pervade the atmosphere in so many business barns, working and riding at a therapeutic facility just seems to make much more sense. I love seeing lives changed, and watching a struggling kid flourish with the help of a horse is pretty awesome.

Right now, I teach just one Tuesday night lesson because of all of the other commitments on my time. That hour has become the highlight of my every week. The student I teach (we'll call him Robert) has some mental challenges as well as quite a bit of spasticity and lack of coordination in his muscles. He's 13, from inner city DC, and drives over an hour to get up to the barn on Tuesdays. When I first met him, his "tough guy" facade kind of cracked me up. He is such an utterly typical teenage boy; he will say all day that he hates everything you're doing to him or with him and pretend to ignore your compliments and encouragement, while all the while he is positively puffing with concealed pride at every high five and "Amazing job, kiddo!"

Robert loves animals. He will chase and pet and talk to every little creature at the barn. The horses, though, intimidate him a little and it's been tough to help him make a connection with the horses he rides. At our first lesson, Robert pretty much only talked about how he couldn't wait for the lesson to be over. He kept asking if it was 5:30 yet. So, in order to distract him and to help him sit up straight through muscle recognition and training, I decided to play some basketball with him. Robert quickly caught onto these games. I hold a big muck tub and he throws a soccer ball into it from all over the ring. We throw for distance or accuracy, or we use the ball time as a reward for accomplishing something else.

For lesson two, a funny little kitten stood and watched our game from the sidelines. Once, when we missed a catch, she scampered out, attacked the ball, and ran away. Robert though this was just about the greatest thing ever. Soon, we had Ollie the Jack Russell stoping in to "watch" or to "cheer him on." Come lesson three, Robert forget to ask me one time when it would be 5:30. Instead, he watched the edges the ring for one of his furry friends. Now, if we need a little encouragement I'll say, "Hey Robert, can you show Ollie how far you can throw that ball?" Works like a charm, every time.

Last night, Robert showed up with new riding vest to help straighten his back under his fleece. I told him he looked like a police officer and started calling him "Officer Robert," and when Ollie "came in to admire it" Robert suddenly wanted to leave off his fleece in the 45 degree weather. Not that he'd admit it, ever, but he wanted everyone to see that new riding vest. We settled for leaving the fleece unzipped.

Robert rode a new horse last week, a newcomer to the barn who is still a little tense, so we didn't get to play our basketball game. When I saw Robert was meant to ride the new horse again, I was a little nervous about not being able to play our games for a second week. Would Robert not want to ride? Yet as we set out around the ring, here comes little Ollie, the world's best sidewalker and kid-encourager extraordinaire to walk alongside his mom, who was leading the horse our friend Robert.

After some warm-ups and a few excellently-executed exercises, including Robert's longest held two-point position yet (Ollie was impressed) I decided to go for a round of Red Light Green Light. Guess who decided to play with us? At every green light, Robert and his horse took a few steps forward, and so did Ollie. At every red light, Ollie's mom told him to sit Ollie stopped, too. Green light, Robert and horse walk, Ollie walks. Red light, Robert and horse halt, Ollie halts. Green light Robert and horse walk, Ollie runs away to inspect another dog, Ollie is out, red light Robert and horse halt. Robert and horse "win." Green light Ollie comes back, Robert and horse walk, Ollie sits too soon to rest, Ollie is out. Robert and horse "win." On and on this went for two whole rounds, and Robert was utterly lit up like a Christmas tree.

And at 5:35, all I heard was, "That was really fun!" So we did it again.

The longer I live, the more convinced I am that kids need a cheering section. Thank you, Ollie, for all 12 small pounds of your spunk. And thanks, Lord, for the funny ways you care and work it all out and for the ways in which you notice. Next goal: Getting Robert to refer to his horse by name instead of "it."

And on another note, I didn't know this until I got home, but last night marked 5 years since my husband asked me to be his girlfriend. He got me roses and made dinner and I fell asleep on the couch. Marriage is bliss. :)

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