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Helping Horses to Help Humans
Helping horses to help humans, that was the extent of my knowledge of Horse Alternative Therapeutic Services (H.A.T.S.) a year ago. Although I've always been a kid person and did want to help the kids, I volunteered with H.A.T.S., a non-profit organization dedicated to teaching special needs people to ride, in order to complete my required 40-hours of community service for school, while spending time with horses. I would arrive half an hour before the lessons were to start. I would groom and saddle the horses, and most times, not look forward to the actual lesson. For one to three hours I would have to circle an arena with my arm propped against a student's leg to support them while they rode, and my other hand on their ankle to keep them steady. My legs might get sore fast, never mind my arms.
Then it happened. The students would start to arrive. One slowly scuffs along with her father's arm for support. Another comes in a wheelchair. Some of them have CP, some of them are autistic, others I'm not sure what they have. They greet the horses as they walk by and head towards the arena. One little boy is ecstatic to hop onto his favorite horse, Dakota. I'm paired with him and need to support him at the ankle. The lesson begins.
The young boy speaks frequently with his side walkers and the volunteer leading Dakota. He never loses his smile. The instructor has the students play games such as Red Light, Green Light. In another game, the boy has to shoot a ball into a hoop. He smiles, "All-well," when he misses. I hand him back the ball and we all cheer, "Score!" when it goes through the second time.
His favorite part of the lesson is the trot. We give him more support and ask the horse to pick up the pace. He bounces back and forth in his seat, but never stops smiling.
When the end of the lesson comes he gives Dakota a big hug and his mother helps him off, her face beaming with joy. And, are those tears of joy in her eyes? My feet and arms do hurt when I unsaddle the horse, but I don't care anymore. These students amaze me. There are some here that could hardly walk before they rode the horses. After weekly lessons, exercises designed to be therapeutic for the body, strengthening the core muscles; some of those same students can now run! Many of them have extended attention spans because of these lessons. For most, this is the first access to sports and recreation they've been able to have.
H.A.T.S. has to deal with a lot of expenses over the course of a year. There is the cost of feed, vet and boarding for the horses. Insurance. Training tools. The instructor receives no payment--she does it because she's passionate about it. The instructor started as a volunteer like myself, coming once a week to sidewalk with the students or lead the horses. H.A.T.S. was on the verge of closing its doors when she joined on as the instructor, sometimes working ten-hour weeks. I realize that without the assistance of volunteers such as her, and the many volunteers like myself that have gone through their doors, H.A.T.S. would never be possible.
I began to volunteer twice a week with H.A.T.S. I enjoyed seeing the joy on these kids faces, how they improved from week to week. When my school became too demanding and I had to back out of volunteering for the lessons, I still wanted to stay involved. I kept in contact with the organization and learned as much as I could about how they operated. I encouraged my friends to complete their volunteer hours there, too.
In 2009 my cousin and myself started an equine e-magazine to benefit the horse community. I interviewed H.A.T.S. for a feature article. Shortly after, the instructor asked if she could use the article to help her earn Volunteer of the Year at her work. I couldn't be happier than to allow it. At our magazine's promotional booth we collect donations for H.A.T.S. at the local horse shows.
I spoke a bit about H.A.T.S. with my youth pastor. He was interested and has begun to make arrangements for a day when the church's youth group can volunteer.
I hope to volunteer in the lessons again, with the students. But for now I'll do what I can on the sideline.
I feel H.A.T.S. is an organization that needs to last. The miracle they work in the lives of their students is too amazing, that amidst those smiles that I see on the children's faces … I feel the tears in my eyes. See the tears of joy on their parent's faces when their children accomplish something they never dreamt possible. I no longer dread the time it takes to help them. Or how much effort I'll have to put forward to accomplish something for them. I'll do whatever I can to help H.A.T.S. because we are making a difference in the lives of those with special needs.
As I've learned, these kids can, and they will … accomplish so much … when we help the horses help them.