American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections
       Fall 2016       LEARNING OPPORTUNITIES

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Hoofbeats and Life Lessons

by Mary Church

Mary ChurchFrom the Editor: A native of California, Mary Church won an NFB National Scholarship in 2015. She is an avid horse enthusiast and plans to study sports psychology.

It is midafternoon. The temperature is perfect, with a slight breeze. I have Red Cloud, a friend's horse who was once almost completely wild, tied to a hitching post. My hand never leaves her; if she decides to kick, or if something spooks her, I can move quickly away. I am ready to begin a massage. It will help her calm down, relax her muscles, and increase blood flow. I am only a student now, but by the end of the summer, I hope to be a certified equine sports massage technician (ESMT).

I begin with an evaluation, palpating, feeling, and rubbing to find strained muscle tissue. Usually the horse will give me a reaction when I have hit a spot that needs work. After I evaluate, I begin the sequence.

Though my family didn't own horses, I grew up in a rural area and was exposed to them from a very young age. My parents didn't want me to be afraid of animals or to fear touching new things. I was two years old when I got my first ride. That was the beginning of my never-ending respect and love for these majestic creatures.

Our neighbor's mule lived on our property. She wasn't rideable, but she made a good companion. I have vivid memories of slipping away from my parents and sneaking into the pasture, somehow avoiding the barbed wire fence. I really liked the mule because she wasn't sad about my blindness as so many people were. As long as I brought her sugar or some other treat, she would stand and let me touch her. I was never afraid she would kick me. Eventually my parents would find me and make sure I was all right.

As I grew up, I sought out opportunities to ride. I never had formal horseback riding lessons until I entered high school. At that point I decided I was serious enough to make riding and horse care a bigger part of my life. I craved the thrill of riding, the companionship of a horse, and the challenge of learning something that not many people thought I could do because of my blindness.

My first horse was called Romeo. He lived at my trainer's ranch, and there was an instant bond between us. I took care of him, and he taught me a lot. Through my high school years I was with him during most of my free time, and in a way we took care of each other. I got first-hand exposure to the less glamorous side of horse care. I learned to clean wounds, give shots, and do barn chores. I also learned about saddles and other types of tack.

Through riding I have literally learned to fall and get back up. My instructor treated me the same as everyone else when that happened, and it was for my own good. I have been stepped on and bitten, but that never stopped me.

Many people assume that my blindness will prevent me from handling a horse safely. They are afraid that I am more likely to get hurt than a sighted handler is. After all, animals can be unpredictable, and I cannot see where the horse is in relation to other things in the environment. When people raise doubts, I respond with confidence and explain the safety precautions I use. I always know where my feet are in relation to the horse's feet; I keep one hand on the horse at all times; and I use common sense. Every good horse handler takes these precautions. If I am careless, I may get stepped on.

I also explain that getting hurt sometimes is an inevitable part of being around horses. Horses are naturally flighty, and some of them have biting problems. Getting hurt now and then is part of life. I feel it is not a good idea to avoid doing things just because one is afraid of getting hurt.

Horses have brought me great joy through the years, and I want to give back to them. Yes, I am blind, and I use some alternative techniques to do things such as reading a horse's body language. As long as I do my best and practice good horsemanship, my blindness makes no difference. What truly matters is the feeling I get when I am around horses, the sense of being accepted by these wise and noble beasts.

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