Another fair is over, the Haflingers are back in their own beds, as are we. What was remarkable about this year was the heat requiring fans and misters for the horses (over 90 degrees several days of the week) and the number of children we put up on Trillium and Marlee’s backs for their first ever opportunity to “ride a horse.” The reality was, there wasn’t any riding to be done, only sitting, but a “pony sit” was so popular at a fair with no pony rides, we at times had a line up of 10-12 children waiting their turn.
I had never seen so many children, some as old as ten, who had never even sat on a horse before. In a rural county, that is a sad fact of life. There are fewer families able to afford to keep a horse, or who know someone with a horse to share, and the liability of pony rides as a business has jumped insurance to the point where they simply aren’t offered in carnivals or fairs any longer. Horse camps and riding lessons are too expensive for many families in tough economic times. These are children who will never know the wonder and challenge of feeling a large animal under them, learning to work together as a team and to be confident enough to ask for and expect obedience.
So we started putting kids up on the horses, for a minute or two each, just so they could sit on those broad Haflinger bare backs, hanging on to manes rather than a saddle horn, and have a basic lesson in mounts and dismounts. They learned to find favorite scratch/itch spots on the horse’s neck and withers, learned to move slowly and talk softly, remembered to say thank you with a stroke on the shoulder.
My favorite part, over and over, was watching those children as they first settled into place behind the withers and then looked out at their parents and siblings standing out of reach outside the stall, with the line up of other children waiting their turn. Their eyes would get large and sparkly as they felt the horse warm, strong and soft beneath them, and that spark ignited a smile that never stopped as they realized this was a “real” horse, not a video game, or a bouncy plastic horse on springs. There was a time for them to be speechless as they took in the sensation, and then becoming very talkative, if I asked them questions, like what the horse felt like to them, or what it felt like to be up so high. They would sometime share the most remarkable thoughts in those few minutes. It felt almost like a confessional.
There were a number of special needs kids, some autistic, some with cerebral palsy and other physical limitations. They struggled to relax their limbs onto the horse’s back, but once in place, muscles finally cooperating, they never wanted to leave. One Down’s Syndrome child, so excited to sit on a horse for the first time, couldn’t stop hugging her neck and kissing her mane. He didn’t even want to sit upright because it would mean losing the hug that meant everything to him.
Our mares were very patient with the process, as we gave them regular breaks. They enjoyed the hugs and kisses given so freely, and blew back plenty of their own.
Within our rapidly urbanizing and risk-averse society, our children are losing any direct connection with larger animals aside from the typical house dog or cat. As long as we are able to do this, we need to offer this opportunity, brief as it is, to hundreds of children during fair week. They need to feel the warmth of the horse’s muzzle, the expansion of their ribs with each breath, the flicker of the skin when touched lightly. They need to know the respect and honor owed to these animals who have adapted to life with humans, to serve us and work alongside us.
The spark in these children’s eyes keeps the fire from going out for me. The memory of Haflingers lingers. There will always be good reason to keep coming back.