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A Horse Sized Investment

People often ask me how I can afford to own a horse. I respond that our horse is an investment in my child’s future.

From the time my daughter, Natalie, was old enough to have her own opinion about the world, she had a natural gravitation toward animals. Her first word was “dog,” and she spent countless hours training her stuffed animals. When I took Natalie to the toy store, I would take her down the doll aisle first. I loved playing with Barbie dolls and baby dolls as a child, so I assumed she would exhibit a similar interest. I was excited when she indicated she wanted a Barbie doll for the first time. It was a dog-walking Barbie that came with a dog that would actually poop out the pellets you fed it. When Natalie got the Barbie home and began playing, I was not surprised to see the Barbie still in the box while she played with the toy dog that came with it. Around this same time, my aunt asked the twins what they wanted to be when they grew up. Isaiah indicated that he wanted to be a farmer. Natalie, on the other hand, gave us a laugh when she indicated that she wanted to be a cow when she grew up. Instead, she settled for dressing up as a cow for Halloween. This was one of my first hints that my daughter had a natural fascination with animals.

When Natalie and her twin brother, Isaiah, were about three-years-old, I decided to take them to the circus. At intermission the ring leader invited everyone to go to the main ring for elephant and pony rides. Natalie begged me to let her ride a pony, but I was skeptical. Not only was it expensive, I am allergic to horses. As a child, my grandparents had a few ponies and I regretted the momentary lapses in judgement when I would get near one. My eyes would start to water and then the sneezing would begin. I assumed that my daughter would suffer a similar fate, so I tried to distract her from the ponies. I offered her a glow-in-the dark stick or a treat from the concession stand, but she is persistent. Eventually I agreed to allow her to have a pony ride after the circus. After intermission, she could hardly pay attention to the acts. She kept asking when the circus would be over so we could go see the ponies. I was not as thrilled about the idea of standing in line and paying twenty dollars for a two-minute ride on a sad-looking pony, but I had made her a promise. So we made the trek down to the arena for the pony rides. I sneezed a few times as I watched Natalie take her couple of laps, but the look on her face was priceless. When her turn was over, Natalie reluctantly dismounted and asked if she could ride again. I could read the disappointment on her face when I told her that she was not getting another round, but I didn’t think much more about it. Later that day, when my mom asked the kids what their favorite part of the circus was, Natalie responded that the pony ride was the best. Seriously? I thought.

From that day on, Natalie talked about horses, drew horses, and begged me to go riding. My mom, who had horses growing up, suggested that I get Natalie a riding lesson for her birthday. I contacted a friend from college who had her own barn and gave riding lessons. I was excited to learn that for a mere ten dollars more than we spent for a pony ride at the circus, Natalie could have a half-hour private lesson. When Natalie’s birthday arrived, my mom and I took her to my friend’s barn for the riding lesson. I stayed back a ways to keep from becoming a sneezing mess while my mom and Natalie groomed the horse. Then Natalie got atop the horse and rode around the arena. It was nice to see the thrill on her face. I was somewhat embarrassed, however. From the time she was young, Natalie was very shy. She wouldn’t talk to anyone outside our immediate family. I tried to convince Natalie to at least say ‘yes’ and ‘no’ or acknowledge others, but she refused. At the end of the lesson, I thanked my friend for the lesson. She mentioned that if Natalie liked riding as much as she appeared to, I should find someone more local to give her lessons.

On the way home, Natalie was abuzz recounting her time on the horse. She immediately asked when she could go visit back to the barn. I told her I wasn’t sure when we would have time to go back. In the weeks that followed, Natalie was relentless. Each and every day, she would beg me to take her to ride one of my friend’s horses. Eventually, I began to browse the internet for local horse barns where Natalie could take lessons. I finally contacted the mom of one of my former students who was on our school equestrian team. She gave me the name of barn near our home. The trainer’s name was Kendra and I called that day to find out about lessons. My only reservation was that Natalie was an elective mute. Would an instructor allow her to keep coming if she refused to talk? I wasn’t sure, but I made the call. We set up a lesson date, but I didn’t tell Natalie. I knew she have trouble being patient if she knew that she had an appointment to ride.

When the day of the lesson arrived, we got to the barn right on time. We met the instructor and she began teaching Natalie about grooming and horse care. Then Natalie helped saddle up the horse named Grandma Cindy, and began the ride. Again, I was concerned because Natalie would not speak. Kendra was patient with Natalie, though, and very encouraging. We left the barn, me sneezing uncontrollably, and Natalie smiling from ear-to-ear. Before we could even pull out of the driveway, Natalie began asking when she could go again. I told her we would have to see.

The next day, I called the new barn to see if she thought Natalie could continue having lessons even though she hadn’t talked. I explained that Natalie suffered from social anxiety and that her social skills were a work-in-progress. The riding coach was both understanding and supportive. She assured me that it was not a problem if Natalie wouldn’t speak during the lessons. She said that she would take it slowly. I was relieved. It was obvious how much Natalie loved to ride. After that, she lived for the next time she could go to the barn. At the time, we weren’t able to get Natalie to the barn on a weekly or bi-weekly basis, so I made lessons for her when we could fit it into our schedules. Oftentimes, my mom took Natalie so I wouldn’t have to suffer the ill effects of my allergies. On the occasions when I was able to go, I was amazed at the improvement not only in Natalie’s riding ability but also her confidence.

For the next few years, riding became Natalie’s outlet. School was a struggle for Natalie because she was so anxious about talking to others. Going to school became a daily battle. At the barn, however, Natalie continued to shine.

Around this same time, Natalie developed a severe vomit phobia. This phobia became so intense that she would have nightly panic attacks. She would cry, shake, and pace around our house. I was devastated, but I felt helpless. Nothing I did seemed to help. She was concerned about throwing up all of the time. She even began to refuse to eat because she didn’t want to throw up. I took Natalie to a counselor to help with the issue, but when Natalie refused to talk, the counselor said there was nothing she could do to help. I was devastated. I just wanted my daughter to feel better. My mom began taking Natalie to riding lessons on a weekly basis, and this offered the only relief for Natalie. She looked forward to these lessons. The only brief relief from the anxiety was at her refuge, the barn. Natalie had begun riding a warmblood named Conway. He was an amazing horse and Natalie adored him. They were a great team, and it was a treat to watch them together.

That summer, I agreed to lease Conway so that Natalie could ride him whenever she wanted. Kendra also invited Natalie to participate as a clover bud through the local 4-H program. Natalie and my mom began going to the barn more regularly. Natalie loved riding, but she also loved grooming horses and doing chores. During this time, I began noticing a pattern; when Natalie went to the barn, she was less anxious about throwing up. She even began talking to some of the riders at the barn. When Natalie would begin to have an episode of anxiety, I would talk to her about horses, and she was more able to calm herself. Kendra even gave Natalie one of Conway’s used horse shoes after the farrier visited the barn to put new shoes the horses. Imagine my surprise when I found Conway’s dirty horseshoe under Natalie’s pillow one night. I thought it was disgusting, but Natalie assured me that the smell was soothing. When we would talk about the upcoming 4-H show at the fair, she would smile.

When fair week arrived, Natalie was so excited. She had been preparing for months for the event. We even had a costume made for the costume class. Natalie would be SpongeBob and Conway would be Patrick. Since Natalie was still too young to compete for ribbons, she only participated in the last day of the show. Rest assured, Natalie was there every day, helping out with other horses and watching the other members of her team compete. On the final day, I was so proud to see her walking around the ring with confidence. To me, it wasn’t about the ribbons or the show, but about my daughter’s well-being. The last class of the day was the costume class and I was mortified to learn that each child had to recite his or her name and the horse’s name into the microphone. I was convinced that Natalie would ride up to the microphone and freeze. The silence would be agonizing. I dreaded Natalie’s turn. I closed my eyes and waited. Then I heard it; Natalie clearly spoke her name and Conway’s into the microphone. The relief I felt was immense. She had conquered her fear. That summer, Natalie became friends with many older girls on the riding team. I saw her emerge socially, and while her panic attacks still occurred, they were much less frequent.

I had heard of horse therapy before, but I didn’t really put much stock into the concept until I saw it firsthand with my child. After that summer, I decided that I would use some of our savings to purchase a horse for Natalie. I couldn’t help, but think that it was crazy for the girl who was allergic to horses to use her savings to purchase a horse, but I did it. Natalie’s instructor helped us pick out an amazing appendix horse named Coco. I have never seen Natalie as happy as the day we brought Coco back to her new home at the barn. Natalie called it Coco’s “adoption day” and it’s a day we celebrate each year.

With her own horse, Natalie has continued to go to the barn as often as her grandma or I will take her. She helps with chores, cares for her horse, practices hard, and competes in dressage shows. Her confidence has continued to grow. She continues to be shy, but will talk to others when they talk to her. Her best friends are the horses and other girls at the barn. She calls them her “barn family.” She works hard to keep her fears at bay and has not had a panic attack since we brought Coco home.

So, while I would not describe myself as a “horse person.” I am a true believer that my daughter’s life has been positively impacted by the horses she has had the pleasure of riding. They have offered her solace during some trying times. She now insists that she is going to be a veterinarian when she grows up. I have no doubts that riding has taught Natalie the perseverance necessary for her to be whatever she decides to be when she is an adult. Now, when people ask me how I can afford a horse, my response is, “How can I afford not to?”

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