The cool air that was tenderly kissing my face and gently blowing back my hair was heavenly. The acrid smell of the sea and everything living in it funneled into my nose, a welcome addition to my senses. I basked in the sunlight that warmed me every couple of minutes, as the puffy white clouds parted ways, leaving the clear blue sky exposed. I had anticipated this day and all these sensations for what seemed like an eternity. I was back on the Oregon coast.
I was within a foot of the water that was dancing back and forth, back and forth with the tide. The sky reflected its tranquil blue color in it. Until this day, I had resigned myself to never experiencing this feeling again. One of many that had been ripped from my life, against my will, thanks to a diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis. Along with having to desist riding a bike, taking a hike in the woods, snowshoe-ing on crunchy trails, and various other outdoor physical activities I enjoyed. I’d never get to work in the garden on my hands and knees, feeling the hot sun on my back and rich earthy soil at my fingertips again. I wouldn’t ever get to furiously paddle a kayak down the Rogue River again, or dance with wild abandon to the loud, thumping music I so enjoyed. I had gone thru the grief process many times in recent years, grieving for passions lost and all those that would never happen. I was restricted to activities that could be accomplished in a wheelchair, as well as only those that didn’t take place in the elements that were anything but a perfect 70 degrees.
This trip to the Oregon coast, Bandon to be specific, was my first in six years. While raising my two children, we had made frequent trips to these coastal beaches filled with tide pools, seashells, and other watery wonders. We had flown kites, dug in the sand, waded in the ice cold water and made countless casts of crab rings and fishing line into the salty sea. My last trip here was with my now ex-husband, many years ago. We had lugged all our camping equipment by foot, down precarious rocky trails to the sand, set up a fire ring and made ourselves at home within earshot of the roar of the crashing waves. I could never do that now.
So when I heard about HOPE Equestrian Ranch out in Eagle Point, to be honest, I didn’t have much hope! I was taking a class titled “Animal Companions” and began talking to a fellow student. She had been volunteering at HOPE for a few years, and told me many heartwarming stories about traumatized children and adults, those that were physically or mentally disabled, whose lives had been touched or changed by riding horses at HOPE. As a child, around the age of 11 or 12, I had signed up for horseback riding lessons, probably just because my older sister had. She had an intense love affair going with horses, normal for young teenage girls.
I, on the other hand, suffered from childhood asthma and allergies, and discovered that I could not be within 10 feet of a stable. So much for that! Even later on, as an adult, carriage rides and rodeos brought about the same stuffy nose, itchy eyes and inability to breathe as it had before. My classmate’s suggestion of checking out the possibility of therapeutic horseback riding out at HOPE didn’t seem very likely. I took the phone number anyway. I wasn’t working anymore, and aside from OLLI adult education classes, wasn’t doing much of anything but going to doctor's appointments and physical therapy. I was extremely bored and becoming majorly depressed.
I called the number to HOPE, on a whim, a few weeks later. The upbeat, slightly rushed female voice I spoke with let me know that it would cost $400 for an eight-week session.
“Can’t I just try it once?” I asked, slightly irritated. “I don’t even know if I can get up on the horse, or if my allergies will be a problem. Plus, the cost is way more than I could even afford…” On and on I babbled. I knew it’d never happen.
“No problem”, the angel on the line chirped. “We have all kinds of lifts and ramps to get all kinds of people up on a horse.”
“But, you don’t understand,” I argued. “My income is very tight and very limited…” She quickly interrupted with more music to my ears.
“Just go on line, fill out our scholarship funds application and get your doctor to sign the medical release. We’re good to go! Are Fridays at 9:30 ok for you? That’s the only time slot we have open right now.”
I was filled with disbelief. Excitement rose in my chest.
“But…You don’t understand,” I spit out.
“We just ask that you pay whatever you can, whenever you can, so that we can keep this program going.” The voice on the phone had just changed my life. Her golden-edged words flew through the line and made my heart soar.
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Now, while enjoying the wonders of being near my beloved ocean, months after that phone call, I remember my first time in the arena at HOPE. I hadn’t been on a horse in 40 years. But as I feel the movement of the horse I’m riding on now in my own hips, and marvel at the glorious beauty of the Oregon coast, I remember how my spine immediately aligned after I had hoisted my stiff, tired body into the saddle. I felt like I was comfortably sitting in an easy chair custom made just for me. I took a deep breath that filled my expanded diaphragm. Miraculously, not only had I apparently outgrown my childhood immune system’s harsh negative response to horses, but I had gained a new outdoor physical activity that I had never experienced before. The diagnoses of MS turned out to have at least one blessing in disguise attached to it. I never would have even considered attempting anything such as this had it not been for the series of events that followed what I had previously considered a life sentence in prison. New doors had now been opened, and the view beyond was absolutely exhilarating.
Again, the beauty of this day strikes me as a one-of-a-kind experience. It had been gray, misty and damp the evening we arrived. My son, Cale, and I had driven over the day before, through spotty bouts of rain and spent the night in a local hotel. We had planned and cancelled this trip together twice already. Once, due to weather, and the other time for an emergency trip to the dentist. I packed our rain gear this time, determined to ride no matter what. As we awoke that morning though, it was clear there would be no need to get wrapped in waterproof outerwear. The sun rising amid bright blue skies that were dotted with florets of cottony clouds, made me hopeful to say the least. There had been a break in the rainy forecast! We dressed and headed towards the stables. I was as excited as I could be, giddy with anticipation. I was confident on a horse now. I had ridden my adopted therapy horse at Hope, named Solfari, with my hands off the reins and my eyes closed. My balance was improved. No allergies were threatening my breath. In spite of losing the ability to bicycle through a forest, or snowshoe in the snowy mountains, I could ride a horse! I could potentially visit all those places again, on the back of a trusted animal companion.
I experienced what it was like again, to move through space, pain free. My posture was perfect as I looked down to see huge piles of twisted seaweed tubers strewn on the sand. My hips were moving in what was the closest thing to a natural gait I could get. Smooth and circular movements filled my inner being with delight, like the “Tinman” receiving squirts of lubricating oil to his joints. I tried to make every moment a lasting memory in my head. Digital photos of the trip were beautiful. Long clean beaches with a dog or beachcomber dotting the sand. Huge rock formations out in the water, with waves spraying on their jagged sides as they collided. A jellyfish lying here and there, shiny in the morning sunlight. Creative colors in all the scenes, unique only to this place. But the pictures I had taken in my memory were attached to strong emotions. Freedom. Independence. Movement. Ability. Life lived.
Another aspect to this story involves the emotions attached to the fact that I get to share this transcendent event with my son, Cale. Now 23 years old, he has become a mature and thoughtful adult. He has had to endure more hardships than most other young men his age, right along with me. But he has been a source of support and constant joy in my life. I hope he can feel my pride and adoring love wash over him as I protectively watch his strong back in front of me, his long legs wrapped around a tall, beautiful chestnut brown horse. I hope he realizes how much I appreciate the fact that he travelled here with me, helped me with all the mobility issues I deal with now. I hope that with the breeze that kisses his face now and the unexpected sun that warms him he can somehow sense how much it thrills me that I get to share this particular horseback ride with him. I have overcome a great hurdle for the umpteenth time.
Riding a horse has given me light in my life where there hadn’t been any for many years. Using my body and feeling the ache of muscles used to work again, fills me with great satisfaction. Knowing that I can get outside, in the air and smell the sweet scent of nature in all her perfumed perfection, creates a desire to thrive deep within me. Although I can’t run along the water’s edge, chasing my little boy with a handful of slimy seaweed, what I can do is follow my grown-up son on the back of a horse. I can sidle up next to him by pulling gently on the reins of my rather large animal companion, and tell him over the crashing sound of waves hitting rock, to never give up. There’s hope in everything. —Karen M.
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