Friday, November 16, 2012

The First Fall

Kissing the ground is a rite of passage that all equestrians have to address, and this afternoon, it was Sissey’s turn. It had to happen eventually, and I guess today was as good as any other. She had recently adopted the sport of riding, a great opportunity for her to exercise not only the body but the mind as well, and I was thrilled at the chance for her to delve into a hobby that not only provided some stress relief but was clearly developing into a lifelong passion. She had bonded with the horses from the minute she first entered the barn, and she loved everything and anything about being out at the farm: the grainy smell of hay, the soft velvety noses, the fat cats roaming the rafters, the silly goat who thinks he’s a horse.  She loved brushing the horses, rubbing them down after a good ride, feeding them oatmeal pies and apples that they loved for a treat. She loved the freedom of movement that being on a horse provided, and told me that when she was sitting on top of a horse, she felt normal, like everyone else, and her cerebral palsy didn't even exist.  This was clearly her thing, she was in her element, and she was happy.

 Every sport comes with its own set of risks; it’s just part of the game with anything that requires a lot of physical activity.   In football, concussions are as common as touchdowns. Soccer involves fancy headwork, and with that comes fancy injuries.  I’m married to a golfer and very familiar with the bum shoulders, swollen elbows, sore knees, and blistered fingers that go along with chasing an egg-sized ball around a pasture of grass. Bikers crash, hikers fall, surfers wipe out, parachuters-- well, let’s not even go there. If you’re going to be an equestrian, at some point you are going to have to deal with your own set of pain. You and the horse are going to become separated, you’re going to fall, and more than likely, you’re going to end up eating dirt in a rather awkward position. It’s just part of the sport and you have to learn to deal with it or go home.

It’s a pivotal turning point, that moment when the rider first hits the ground, and it is the event separates the horse addict from the recreational rider.  The addict gets back up, spits the grit out of their mouth, wipes the dust from their hands, shakes it off, and gets back on. The rest pack up their saddle and exit the barn.

Jet had been cooperative in the small rink that afternoon as he and Sissey had warmed up, trotting easily around and around, turning upon command, shifting smoothly from walk to trot.  It was when they moved to the big rink that he became skittish and stubborn, not liking the fact that he was being forced to trot on ground that was wet and spongy after a morning of heavy rain. The coach had been hesitant to ride in the current conditions, but Sissey had brought her twin brother and grandparents to watch and was insistent that the lesson go on as scheduled. The soft sand sank over Jet’s hooves with each step, and it was with great effort that he responded to Sissey’s commands to trot and go faster. When he got to the back of the rink, an area that for some reason he despises, he spooked-- maybe from the sound of a truck rumbling down the nearby highway, maybe from sinking a little too deep in the mud, but for whatever reason, he startled  and stumbled and turned in a flash. It seemed like slow motion as Sissey slid to the side, dangled for a moment from the stirrups, then collapsed into a heap onto the wet ground.  I screamed as I started to run towards her, heart pounding as I visualized broken bones protruding from bloody skin.

I stopped running, however,  when I saw her head pop up  with a huge smile on her face. I put on the brakes and started to calmly walk into the arena .

“MOM!  DON’T TELL ME I HAVE TO STOP RIDING!”  was the first thing she yelled as I approached.  She was covered in mud from head to toe, wallowing in wet sand and grinning like she had just won the lottery.

“Did you see that?” she laughed. “I fell off!”

“Really? I hadn’t noticed.” I was trying to be oh-so-calm and cool and collected, but inside I was shaking like a dry leaf on a windy day. “You OK? Did it knock the breath out of you? Ready to get back up?"

I was rather proud of my ability to act like a confidant mom as we helped her up and back into the saddle. Water poured from the cuffs in her pants as she checked her helmet and reins. With a click of her tongue, a gentle pat, and a command to get going, she and Jet trotted back to the fence and continued to slosh around a very wet arena.

I’m glad the fall happened for several reasons. First, in the back of my mind, ever since she decided it was horses for her, I had worried about whether or not she would be able to manage a galloping beast that weighed approximately the same thing as an ice-cream truck.  Balance and muscle tone, two common areas of weakness in people with cerebral palsy, were an area of concern, but I put on a brave smile and said, “Honey, you’re going to be the greatest rider and I can’t wait for you to start showing!” All the while, I was secretly making pacts with God about how I would save a third world country, adopt an orphan, rescue a puppy, feed the homeless and shelter a refugee if He would just keep her safe on that beast she was straddling.  Secondly, we had just spent an enormous amount of money on a new riding helmet for her.  I was opting for the $24.99 plastic model with the adjustable strap, but Sissey had already spied the ridiculously expensive,  black velvet, Charles Owen model with a darling satin bow perched across the back. The saleswoman insisted that the more expensive model was the only one that properly fit her precious head, but she clinched the deal when she very calmly but matter-of-factly told me that the helmet cost less than a trip to the emergency room.  How are you going to argue with that? I figured this was not the time to  bargain shop, plus the cute little bow on the back was just too darn cute to resist.  At least now, after the fall, I was certain that I had made a very good investment as Sissey's helmet had not so much as tilted an inch and her cranium remained intact as she hit the dirt. And finally, as I watched her ride, covered in mud and soaking wet on a cold November afternoon, I realized that she could not only handle the horse, but could also handle whatever else happened as well. Riding, falling, whatever-- she just had this huge smile on her face, the kind that comes from doing something you really, really love, and it was worth everything just to see that.

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