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Vagneur: Finding trust and acceptance through our equine friends

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

The first thing I noticed was the mailbox, high above my head on a post — actually, about elbow high, if I was sitting on a horse. Immediately I was drawn in, picturing myself picking up the mail astride my horse, and I reflected on the rest of the arena; small gates to ride a horse through, carefully spaced logs on the ground to give a horse his paces, a small bridge to ride across and a plethora of other challenges and adventures awaiting special needs children and adults taking advantage of equine therapy.

What is there about a 1,200 pound, gentle animal that can provide a very powerful and real connection to an ordered, calm world for those continually challenged to find such a link? Children with autism, teens in recovery, abused kids afraid to reach out, physically challenged youth — the list is long. These are the ones who begin to find trust and acceptance through their equine friends.

There’s an old saying that “the outside of a horse is good for the inside of a man.” There’s nothing quite as heartwarming as seeing a young boy or girl standing next to “their” horse, hanging on to the halter with one hand and a huge smile upon their face. That’s the calmness and relaxation I’m talking about.

On some level, we all have to admit that there is something mystical about horses; they have a spiritual allure that draws in all but the most calloused eye. It’s not magic, but almost, and that’s what makes it work for WindWalkers, an equine-assisted learning and therapy center. No one-shot program, WindWalkers provides therapeutic riding, hippo therapy, equine-assisted counseling, all-inclusive camps and more. If you’re older, check out its Silver Saddles program.

Horses work from sensory memory — they keenly remember sights, sounds and touch — that’s why they like a pat on the neck or someone to rub their cheek or shoulder – it means something good to them because they have a pleasant memory of it.

Now think about the abused child, physically punished for trying to show love, for reaching out to his or her caregivers for support that seldom, if ever, comes. Put that child next to a horse and see what happens. The extended hand is not met with rejection or pain but with acceptance from the animal. For the first time in his or her life perhaps, that child communicates on a loving basis with another living being. The smile becomes huge, and the horse’s demeanor mirrors the delight of the child. That’s only a start, but it’s huge, and the lessons learned at WindWalkers go far beyond the riding arena.

Whether bound to a wheelchair, locked inside emotionally or anywhere else on a scale of troubled children, these kids, once aboard their horses, are truly walking with the wind, with a feeling deep inside that must be akin to the thrill of birds on the wing.

In a valley full of nonprofits, each scrambling for funds from our valley’s charitable and caring people, it’s tough to get the message out about groups such as WindWalkers, but it is incredibly important to its survival. WindWalkers performs its magic 12 months out of the year, 6 days a week, and the schedule is full well in advance — this is not just a summer program.

Think about this: It usually takes three people to take a client out — two on each side and one leading the horse. That is all for safety reasons and certainly not everyone needs that much help, but such intensity requires a dedicated group of volunteers as well as the four paid staff. There may be three or four clients riding at one time, so the depth of committed volunteers is impressive.

Currently, there are 1 full-time horses in the WindWalkers cavvy, and God bless ’em — they eat hay and grain twice a day. If you have animals (dogs, horses or cats), you know the importance of proper diet and regular feeding. Working with horses is a daylight to dark proposition, and 11 horses can eat a lot of hay.

You can find infinitely more information at windwalkerstrc.org, and can make donations of any size directly online. Executive Director Gabrielle Noelle Greeves, an energy-driven, passionate champion for the many programs at WindWalkers, can be reached at 970-963-2909.

Make someone’s day today.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at ajv@sopris.net.


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