While originally I planned on volunteering at the Courage Center, a volunteer time never opened which fit into my class/work schedule. Instead, I began volunteering as a Sidewalker with We Can Ride, a therapeutic horseback riding program in St. Paul. Here are a few of my tales of tails...
Seven weeks ago, I watched as Leaders walked rather scruffy horses around a dirt-filled arena. The horses plodded along, appearing rather disinterested in the whole business. While I rode horses a few times many years ago, memories from youth have a way of coloring experiences with an aura of wonder. I remembered tall, gleaming, majestic creatures, whinnying and prancing...a stark contrast to the medium-sized, wooly-wintered-coated animals before me. I would soon learn, however, that these horses, perhaps no longer of show-quality beauty, possessed beauty of heart and temperamant...a beauty perfectly suited to their current service to people with disabilities.
Fifteen minutes before each session, the Sidewalkers (people who walk next to the horses to ensure the riders' safety upon the horse) greet their clients and help them into the arena so they may groom their horses. I examined the client list, and noted the client I was assigned to for each of the three classes which constitute one volunteer session. The client for the first class had a spinal cord injury, the client for the second class had Down Syndrome, and the client for the third class had Autism Spectrum Disorder. I felt comfortable working with people with spinal cord injuries, and have experience working with people with Down Syndrome, but had limited experience working with people with autism. Throughout the first two classes (which went fairly smoothly), my thoughts kept returning to what to expect in the third class. In Psychology, we learned about the wide variety of ability levels encompassing the spectrum of autism...what would the client be like?
Shrill, repetitive jabber filled the arena, interspersed with abrupt shrieks. My client had arrived. She could produce sound, but could not speak. She was mobile, yet could not stop moving. She was focused, but on everything but the lesson plan. I will admit that I was nervous, and doubting of her coherence. I felt grateful for my first two clients, with whom I could easily converse. As I watched my fellow Sidewalkers greet their smiling, mentally engaged clients, I will admit that a slight feeling of jealousy arose. Working with my client with autism, however, turned out to be one of the most rewarding experiences of volunteering with We Can Ride.
Every week, I could see some improvement in all of the clients, ranging from general comfort on the horse, to better trunk and postural control. My client in the third class, however, improved beyond what I ever could have imagined. She now pats the horse to signal she is ready to go. She will participate in stretches (albeit briefly), and while she still has a tendency towards distraction, she is more often calm and focused on the horse. She also smiles. Beautifully.
Volunteering with We Can Ride has shown me the importance of access to physical activity and socialization, especially for people with disabilities. In our textbook, it discusses the lack of availability of adaptive sports many people face. I have seen the growth and strength which sports such as horseback riding can facilitate (and yes, I do consider horseback riding a sport now. While I previously considered it a more recreational activity, my opinion has now changed after watching the physical skills which horseback riding necessitates...sport truly is a flexible social construction.) Unfortunately, the cost of taking classes at We Can Ride can prove prohibitive to those who do have access to the class. This socioeconomic barrier is one which I have seen often in adaptive sport, where costs of specialized equipment and transportation can cause division amongst people with disabilities. I did notice, interestingly, that while adaptive sport may cause a bit of division, it also often affords inclusion of gender. Males and females of a wide variety of ages participate together in the We Can Ride classes. The males don't attempt to be more "macho", and the females don't attempt to ride sidesaddle to demonstrate a female apologetic (however, many of the younger females DO have more decorated riding helmets than the males.) This integration of males and females perhaps demonstrates how disability can overpower the gender divide.
We Can Ride offers wonderful opportunities for people young and old to have an experience which they can share with their peers. Whether a client's goals are of being able to go trail riding with a sibling, of having fodder for lunch table conversation, of strengthening one's core, or of simply having fun, We Can Ride can help those goals to be accomplished.