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Healing Horses: "Horses literally saved my life."

By Carolyn Grodinsky and Dianne Lashoones

 . . .Tangos Topper, a 27-year-old Tennessee walker, looks like an ordinary horse: he’s got a white blaze on his face and a beautiful chestnut coat. But he’s one of a kind. Topper started working for Rhythm of the Rein when he was 19. Patient, rock solid and personable, he’s perfectly suited for the job. He works with riders with a range of special challenges, including autism, learning disabilities, cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injuries, posttraumatic stress disorder, developmental delays, multiple sclerosis, strokes and amputations.

During each session, Topper tunes into both his rider and his handler and knows which of them to listen to. He tolerates unbalanced riders, and he shifts his weight to support and help balance them. As some riders can’t control their movements, Topper ignores unintentional cues from spastic limbs, enthusiastic bouncing and leg swinging. He knows to ignore screams of excitement, too. He waits patiently for a complicated mount on his back, either from a typical mounting block, the ramp or the mechanical lift, and he knows he’s not supposed to budge until told it is safe to do so.

WATCH: Healing horses helping children with physical challenges

Topper takes good care of his riders, from the smallest to the most infirm. The more disabled riders need a special lift to get on his back, plus two assistants walking along his side to support them. He can also accommodate more independent riders who do not need support or leaders but are learning to take risks with a safe and predictable “copilot.” He stands patiently while wheelchairs, walkers and canes supporting clients make their way around him to groom him or feed him the expected treat at the end of a session. (Mentos mints are Topper’s favorite, although the staff likes riders to bring healthier treats for the horses.)

Topper’s “students” range from 2 to 60 years old. One 60-year-old rider was a troubled veteran. Although he’d never ridden a horse before, at the insistence of his counselor, he gave the program a try. He started his first session with a staff member leading and two people walkingalongside. Gradually the side-walkers peeled away, then the leader, and by the end of the session he was riding on his own. Three years later, this veteran owns a horse, volunteers with the program and even sits on the board. “Horses,” he repeatedly says, “literally saved my life.”

Some children are born with physical hurdles placed in their way even before their little feet hit the ground. It is one thing to have experienced, then lost, the freedom of independent movement and yet another to have never experienced it at all. One young rider is in this second category. He can get around only if he is carried or uses a stroller or a specialized walker. Because of this child’s unique needs, a lot of accommodations are necessary before he can safely balance on a horse. In fact Topper needs to carry both him and the instructor working with him, which places an additional physical demand on the elderly Topper. But the first time this child rode, all the challenges paled next to the boy’s excited command after just a few steps on horseback: “Faster!”

Topper—and his stablemates—take riders to places they could never otherwise explore. It’s a precious experience. Animals understand more than we think: Topper knows that his riders have special requirements, and he knows exactly how he needs to move to keep them safe. He and all the other amazing therapy horses at Rhythm of the Rein are friends and confidants to their riders, listening to those who may feel more secure talking with a horse than with another person.

Horses do not judge or have any expectations other than to be treated with respect— something we all wish for ourselves, whatever our challenges.

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