The story about Zenyatta and her little friend Jack, who has autism, has had me thinking about Thoroughbreds and the role that they play in helping people.
Most of us are reliant in some way upon the satisfaction and friendship that our Thoroughbreds give us. We work very hard to understand them – sometimes it seems like they understand us without any effort at all. (Of course, sometimes it seems like they are deliberately going out of their way to misunderstand us – how, dear TB, could you possibly think that I would want you to respond to a soft half-halt by flinging your head straight up and bolting?) I often call Final Call my espresso shot because he wakes me up when nothing else seems to do the trick. What can I say, I’m a tired person most of the time. But there’s something about that Thoroughbred. . .
For a while as a teenager I kept OTTB Number One at a small farm where classically named “troubled kids” would come to groom, ride, and do stable chores as a part of their therapy programs. These were great kids at the farm – in real life, not so much. It was astonishing to me when I found out that some of my favorite riding buddies had criminal records and came from very dysfunctional homes that were far outside my middle-class suburban realm. Around the barn, we were all just muddy kids, listening to an old barn radio and doing all the work while the adults sat in plastic Wal-Mart loungers with Coronas and talked about work.
The horses at this farm were all Arabs, with the exception of my OTTB and a long yearling. The yearling was getting ready to head to Kentucky to start his racing career, and all of us were in awe of him. He was a sweet horse. The two Thoroughbreds would seek each other out – in five acres of Arabs, they stood together as family and went nowhere apart.
The Arabs were amazing in the lesson program – one was actually a breeding stallion, and yet was a pleasure to ride and handle even for the sixteen-year-olds who were assigned to him. We used to fight over him a little, actually. I could never say anything against these great little horses, because I learned a lot from them. But the Thoroughbreds were the ones the kids hung on. The yearling would wait with his head over his stall door, ears pricked, for the after-school sounds of kids in the driveway, kids running to the barn. And everyone would rub on him and love him, and he’d soak it all up, a fractious long yearling destined for the races, as much a lover as any of the oldsters in the barn.
Even my old guy would always let any kid, of any age, climb aboard, do a little ear grabbing, do a little whisker pulling, and the sins that he might punish me for in the riding ring would go unmarked while dozens of children of all ages pounded his back, snatched his mouth, kicked his sides, and generally abused him in a way that would send me to the ground without a second thought.
I wonder how many Thoroughbreds there are in formal therapy work. I’m sure it’s minute compared to the tens of thousands engaging every day in the informal work, keeping people sane, keeping people focused, keeping their owners and riders and grooms believing in something greater than themselves. But they’re out there, these horses with their tremendous hearts and desire to give – horses like Zenyatta, horses like my old Amarillo, who give and give and give, with no less dedication and prowess than that which they show to the art of running.