During my time attending USF and studying for a biology major, I joined the veterinarian’s club. At first I would only volunteer to feed the feral cats on campus when someone needed the weekend off and I would be on campus anyways with no extravagant plans. I was waiting specifically for an equine related event and finally the email came.
The event that was presented was for an organization that provided trail rides for disabled individuals as well as veterans. Unfortunately, I was not in the habit of keeping precise records at the time so I do not remember the name of the organization. The group of volunteers attending met on campus and drove through a suburban development maze to reach the barn at its center. We sat for an orientation video and then were left to mill around the common area until the riders arrived. At that point I was itching to help more directly with the horses but of course being a new volunteer I wasn’t allowed much hands on application.
What I did get to do was assist the disabled riders settle into the saddle for the trail ride. The riders ascended a ramp in a covered ring and we walked the horses in a around it until everyone scheduled was ready. A more frequent volunteer at the center led the horse and two volunteers, myself included, walked on either side of the horse. Some riders needed an extra supporting hand on their leg or just a person there to reassure them. The horse and rider teams we worked with that morning were great: they remained calm, took directions from the head volunteers easily, and genuinely enjoyed their time there. These walking sessions were also partially rehabilitation exercises, as we prompted the riders to keep up their posture, move with the horse, grip with their legs, and helped boost their confidence.
This experience of helping riders was similar to the Spring Farm Festival Day held at Equestrian Inc. on Saturday April 13. I have been volunteering there most Fridays and Saturdays since about October 2012 so I felt comfortable greeting the volunteers and stepping up to help out. As soon as I arrived I made my way to the barn to help with trail rides – it’s not easy walking horses on a hot day! I was given the lead line for Astoria, Secretariat’s great grandson, and we flowed right down to business! Astoria carried younger, older, beginner, and experienced riders well. There were times when I had to correct him, or he would see the open gate and try to retreat to his stall, but I convinced him to keep going throughout the events.
I recall a handful of young inexperienced riders who were at first terrified by Astoria’s height. One young girl in particular had never been on a horse before and was about to go out with her sister astride another horse. After she was lifted into the saddle she crouched down over Astoria’s shoulder. Clearly she was terrified, clinging to the saddle and repeating that she did not think she could do this. When these situations occur I try and put myself in the place of the rider and provide what I believe will be what they need in that moment. In this case I remained calm and spoke gently to her while Astoria stood patiently for me. I coaxed the rider to keep her eyes on me and reassure her that she could in fact do this. We stayed at a stand still until she felt comfortable moving forward. I encouraged her to sit up straight and relax her lower body to help her feel more secure in the saddle. As it was, she went from flinching at even the slow walk to laughing and wanting to run on Astoria by the time the ride was over. Isn’t that something?
I’m happy to say that all the volunteers did a great job and helped the riders both feel safe and enjoy themselves. It’s quite a feeling when you help someone to the great height of a tall horse and they come out of it confident and ready to go again!
I highly recommend the experience of volunteering working with horses. It’s beneficial to both parties and builds great confidence in the individual.
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