I watch my son, David, 17 years old, framed by the blue Ojai sky, guiding his horse along the railing of the corral. His seat is upright and strong and there is a smile in his eyes as he watches the other riders around him. He is in control, he is confident, he is normal, I think. But my "vision" only lasts for a moment, because in the everyday world, I know my son is severely handicapped and functions on the level of a 2- to 3-year-old. My vision may have dissolved quickly, yet David is still confident. He continues his ride. I marvel on how much he has learned since he started at Above and Beyond Ordinary in the summer of 2004.
At first, I just wanted David to have an activity, which is something hard to find for a child with handicaps. He had ridden a few times when he was 6, but had not been on a horse for 10 years. As I watched him ride, that summer, I saw him learning and became fascinated with the process.
What amazed me was that Jan Threinen, the founder of Above and Beyond Ordinary, noticed some key things about David. She noticed that he knew that he should lean forward to get off his horse , she noticed he liked to go fast, and he did not like to stand still. For me, that was the clincher in the deal. I was accustomed to people not noticing anything about David other than his disabilities. I was intrigued and wanted him to continue riding. We signed up for weekly lessons.
It takes a lot of "noticing" to communicate with a nonverbal person and Jan was able to interpret David's body language. For instance, one day, David, as usual, was not holding onto the reins and didn't seem to care that he wouldn't be able to stop Diva, his horse , without them. When she found out that David was more interested in movement than in security, Jan told him that every time he dropped the reins the horse was going to stop. Jan stopped Diva every time David dropped the reins. ? stop, go, stop, go ? all the way down the path. Finally, David held the reins and Diva kept going. Then he got to trot - an exciting reward. It was beautiful, simple, and we all learned something!
Diva, having adopted David as her rider, was extremely patient throughout this "learning moment." Now, after he finishes a task while riding, she will automatically start trotting because she has figured out the reward. She also has learned to stand very close to the mountingdismounting ramp so that he has an easier time getting on her back. Of course, there are the nuzzles, signs of affection, and the growing friendship between David and Diva. And Diva is not alone in her special abilities at Above and Beyond Ordinary. Cindy, another talented mare, a "pain in the neck" when Jan first got her, was chosen because of the look in her eyes that said, "Let me figure out what you want and I'll do it." Cindy doesn't like other horses and doesn't care much for able-bodied riders but loves her riders with disabilities!
One day, Cindy was carrying a favorite rider, Dan, a 40-year-old man with seizures and an inoperable brain tumor. She slowed down to a crawl, and nudged Jan and co-founder Diane Brooks. Thirty seconds later, Dan had a seizure. Cindy moved slowly and in such a way it kept Dan balanced, pacing herself to keep him steady all the way back to the waiting area. Jan, Diane, and Dan's helper got him off the horse , but Cindy, usually anxious to get to her food reward, would not move from Dan's side until he came out of his seizure. Satisfied that he was OK, she nudged him and returned to her stall.
And how does Jan find these remarkable horses and how are they trained? She related that therapeutic riding originated in the rural and ranching towns of this country. If a child was disabled, families would stick them on a horse and take them along to whatever work they were doing. Ordinary people would have accidents and get hurt and horses would be specifically trained to match the person's disability. Jan was brought up in such a town and was working with horses as a young girl. When she would be sent to bring in a horse in from the herd, she had to figure out the horse 's social spirit and how to convince the horse (on 200 acres) that it should come with her and not run off. She learned how to approach the herd; to go at an angle without spooking them. If they moved, she would wait and then find the ring leader. The rest would follow.
Horses make sense to Jan. Nowadays, she will choose a horse for the Above and Beyond 30-day trial because of the look in its eyes. Horses in their stalls and in the field have opportunities to watch the lessons. If she sees a horse interested, she will give them a chance at joining in. Jan says, "They listen to everything and figure out what is going on, then half the schooling is done ? after watching for awhile, a horse will quickly learn the routine in two weeks. They figure they will get attention and be important like the others are important." The horses are the ones who decide to do the work; Jan just refines the process. The two or three that haven't watched did not make the 30-day trial. Through her knowledge, experience and sensitivity, Jan knows how a horse will respond to this special work. And as Cindy did with Dan, and Diva did with David, the horses will pick their students and adapt to their disabilities.
Seventy-five percent of Jan's horses are below the age of 16. Generally, they have been cowboyed for years and "bomb-proofed." Jan shows them that all the things a person can throw at them, drop at them, and rope into them will not hurt them. It takes approximately six months from start to finish for the horses to feel safe. She explained to me how it takes hours to train horses to control their emotions. "In that split second it takes for them to shy, I get them to look at me." When she supplies that support, she explains, then they are OK.
Sometimes, the students pick the horses . Ben, a young boy with autism, refused to ride for three months. His family would bring him and he would simply refuse to get on a horse . One day, he told them, "Ozzie says he is my friend. Ozzie says he will take care of me." Ozzie, a good-sized mustang, stands 14.1 hands and would not have been Jan's choice for the small boy. But they gave it a try and Ben has been successfully riding Ozzie for a year now. Zack, diagnosed with cerebral palsy, is tube fed and has extreme disabilities, but he rides Cookie, the pony, by himself. Cookie, "a brat," Jan calls her, nickers when Zack arrives at the center. They have another student who now walks and talks because of the horses . The gains the disabled students make are remarkable. One instructor explains that it takes a lot for an able-bodied person to coordinate brain, body, perception on a horse and it is even more work for a person who is disabled. But with the horse as a reward, it makes the work, play. I see this in David. He is now gaining greater control over his body and mind and emotions. Effort and gain are entwined in one package. He is encouraged to take control of Diva and as she rewards him for his effort, and as we cheer him on, he perceives correctly that he is accomplishing something extraordinary. My guess is that this experience is so intense in the effort that it becomes engrained quickly as body memory. "It is a sensory-rich experience that gets the neuro pathways going" says Pablo Valez, director of the Amigo Outdoor Program . And what a thrill it is to hear this essentially non-verbal boy say "Whoa!" to stop his horse .
Perhaps it is Jan's own history with adversity that helps her to understand and bring out the best in her students. In 1983, she had been training horses and teaching people with disabilities in Northern California. Though she had been ignoring some difficulty with movement of her legs, she went to the doctor for an unrelated injury and suddenly found herself diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. From then on, she was back and forth, in and out of wheelchairs. In 1999, deciding she had had enough of that, with no thought of a profession, Jan volunteered at Hearts Adaptive in Santa Barbara. She was hired immediately as an instructor and was certified with North American Riding for the Handicapped Association in six months.
In 2001, seeing the need in the Ventura area, Jan founded Above and Beyond on land leased from a stable in Oxnard. Though her dream was to own the land that she uses for Above and Beyond, the school just manages to pay for its upkeep while Jan lives off her disability. In 2002, Diane Brooks joined Above and Beyond. A volunteer at Hearts Adaptive with a lifetime experience with horses , Diane had helped start two other therapy programs . When things didn't work out in Oxnard, Jan and Diane moved Above and Beyond to Rancho Arnaz in Ojai where they have been for five years.
Above and Beyond Ordinary is a NARHA-certified center. NARHA, founded in 1969, promotes and supports therapeutic riding throughout the United States and Canada. Centers are held accountable and are regulated with high standards of instruction. There are around 600 centers throughout the United States. They range from small one-person operations to large operations with several instructors. Above and Beyond strings around 11 horses and the students range in age from 2 to 46. Jan also trains volunteers in horse management and teaches them to work with the riders with disabilities. A 9-year-old volunteer can be taught to correctly tack up horses .
What I especially like about Above and Beyond Ordinary is that it is a success story every day. It is a success if disabled riders grow confident enough to ride on their own; if they say "whoa," if they trot the horse , if they walk the horse back to the ramp, if they connect with the horse , with the instructor. It was a success when four volunteers walked to a distant corner of the ranch to attend Zack's birthday party. As Jan says, "More than just a business, Above and Beyond invites all into its world and thereby enlarges the world of everyone."
It is simple and profound. "Kids have a connection with horses - and these horses seem to have a special connection with these special kids," Jan says. Each learns and gains from the other. I can see this clearly on David's face. On Diva he is confident and feels on par with the able-bodied riders. My momentary "vision" of perfection may have dissolved. But now I realize I am seeing a living, breathing, ever-changing vision that will unfold as the future unfolds, and though it may not be exactly as I would have it, framed against the clear blue Ojai sky, it is beautiful.
Ojai Valley News
To learn more about Above and Beyond "Ordinary" People contact Lauren at Oxnard, CA 93035. 805-217-2776 or visit their website at http://abopeople.org/
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