Below is an excerpt of an essay by Maria Miller, sharing what she has learned from her daughter’s 10 years of riding lessons on a farm.
When my daughter first stepped foot on the Gemmell farm she was small, but fearless. She’d already fought hard in her young life to sit up, stand, and take steps. I tell the story pretty often—that prior to her first riding lesson she could not navigate uneven ground or go up a step on her own, but after 2 lessons, stepped in and out of the barn, a 4-inch step, independently. That it was riding that ‘woke up’ her lateral muscles and she’s never looked back—now riding a scooter, kicking a ball, running and jumping: all possible because, I believe, and much before they would have occurred with any other form of therapeutic intervention. One current goal is riding a 2-wheeler independently—she’ll get there, I’m confident, because of her continued fearless attitude, her untiring perseverance, and her love of being in motion!
My daughter has learned a lot from horseback riding: time at the farm is a social, occupational, physical, behavioral, and speech therapy session all in one. In addition to the practical benefits of farm time, it is good mental health time. Time to watch the birds fly in the open sky, time to smell fresh hay, time to giggle at the silly things horses do, and bask in their majesty.
So what have I learned? That’s what I really wanted to write about—to share with other moms, dads, grandparents, anyone who loves someone who carries the label “disabled” – what I learned from this experience. Has driving nearly an hour (there, then back again) nearly 400 times in the past 10 years—been worth the time, money and effort? You bet it has.
I’ve grown enough in wisdom and experience to know that being a mother of a child with a disability didn’t really come so naturally. Maybe it does for other moms, but I’m pretty confident that if you talk to other “special” moms, most would say they were wildly unprepared for the experience. Add to that the maneuvering of the health system, the education system, and society’s still-evolving perception of persons with disabilities, this gig is not for the weak of heart. I’m very blessed to have a wonderful support system that allows me to keep learning. Like much of life, the thing I absolutely know that there is still much more to know. I acknowledge that not all these lessons have come only from our time on the farm, but they are certainly all evident there.
I learned that a person – yes, even a person with a disability! – can have a passion, a joy. A place that makes them feel more like who they are in the purist existence of their soul. When “L” steps foot out of the van and onto the farm, there is a certain peace and wholeness like no other place we have encountered.
I learned that people, all people, should have high expectations for other people—yes, even a person with a disability. That if you expect that a person is less, they will give you less. And if you take the lid off of what you think a person is capable of, they may grow right out of the jar.
I learned that most people, whether labeled with a disability or not, have some sort of challenge in their life: physical, intellectual, psychological…we all have more of some and less of another. We’re all a “blend”: a combination of intelligences, intuition, artistic gifts—and that’s what makes the world a beautiful mystery.
I’ve learned that nature…its beauty, its hardships, animals, and people sharing space…is also a beautiful mystery. Reading a story of non-verbal child discovered chatting away with a miniature pony, or appreciating people who struggle with mental health creating absolutely stunning pieces of art with glass or pastels, or lead pencils fills you with awe of God’s creations: that He made in the world humans and the elements and creatures to coexist, and that we should appreciate that more than we sometimes do.
I’ve learned that growth, true growth that matters, takes time and effort. That persons living with disabilities need people in their lives to be patient and kind. That to help them learn we often need to break things down into small incremental steps and learn to present things in a different way (perhaps a way we have NEVER used before!) for growth to happen. It may surprise you by showing up when you least expect, and often you may even not notice right away. And that when you do recognize that it is happening…it is beautiful. Like many parents who have that moment when their child takes their first step or says their first word. It’s like that. And we ‘special’ parents are blessed because we get to witness those moments again and again.
To a “special” mom starting out I would advise keeping a journal. I feel at an early age well-meaning professionals got me to focus on what my daughter could NOT do, and not what she could. It’s taken a lot of years to continue to keep trying to turn that around. A journal will show you where you’ve been and where you are. A journal will give you an opportunity to smile, to laugh, to beam with pride: it will remind you that things might be tough right now, but they were before too and guess what? You got through it.
Related to this, I’ve learned it is important to focus on your child’s interests and strengths—they are gifts. It is in these things that their world can become THEIRS. Encourage them, provide opportunities to grow them, and celebrate them! (By the way, this is for all of us, not just those of us with labels.)
I’ve learned that it is important for everyone—yes, even people with disabilities—to be able to contribute, work, create, have relationships (independent from their immediate family), to develop a healthy sense of pride and independence.
I’ve learned that communication comes in a lot of forms. That sometimes a quiet ride is as nurturing as a good talk. That touching an animal is a form of communication. That behavior is communication. That responding to behavior with or without words is communication.
I’ve learned that more than WHAT your child is learning or WHERE your child goes to school, or even WHY you chose that particular intervention for your child…It is the WHO that is the most important part of their day. Finding PEOPLE that invest in your child who have the right philosophy, knowledge, and experience, and deliver that philosophy and experience in a resourceful, enthusiastic and thoughtful way, is perhaps, I feel, what will make the most difference. If this isn’t happening, it’s more of a holding pattern, and I recommend moving on.
Lastly, an additional part of our equestrian journey is participation in one of Bucks County’s 4H Clubs for youth. The club meets monthly, and for L it is an opportunity to meet and spend time with peers, joining in the goals of the club: learning about horses and riding, and giving back to the community. I’ve learned that being a part of inclusive groups is important for everyone. Peers model typical behavior, language, and interests that help a child with disabilities grow; and, children with disabilities teach important lessons like perseverance, possibility, and that every person gives something of themselves for the good of us all.
After 10 years of lessons and annual participation in her “home” farm’s show, we await her participation this summer in the 4H Bucks County Round-Up where she will compete in two Therapeutic Riding classes. A fellow 4Her, a kind wonderful little girl said yesterday: “I’m so excited that “L” will be in the Round-Up this year!”
Me too, kiddo, me too
It’s not to say that other things have not influenced my perspective: A loving husband, who supports me in whatever time and financially-consuming ways I decide to “help” our daughter grow and learn; two amazing sons who have, whether they recognize it or not, sacrificed part of their childhood to allow me to push my full-court press of being a mother to their sister; family members and friends, and the many “special” moms I’ve met along the way—I’ve learned something from each and every one.
And then there are the people I work for and with: my coworkers here at Voice and Vision. My experience here of working as a Field Specialist for the Independent Monitoring for Quality team has surely shaped the kind of parent I am, the kind of person that I have become; and perhaps even more profound for an employer, is the kind of person I continue to grow to be.
Voice and Vison invests in its workers—to serve our mission and those in our lives, to recognize and honor one another for our unique gifts and talents, and to challenge us to continue to grow. I would say my family life and my faith are the two greatest influencers in my life, but beyond that, being an employee for Voice and Vision, an organization that supports its employees as an extended family and actively puts effort into building their occupational skills AND the best qualities of a human being, has been a wonderful blessing to me.
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