Saving Stash -”His Saving Grace” Part 2.
by Holly Peterson
No one likes contemplating putting an animal to sleep, much less a healthy animal. But Stash had a problem. While it was a seemingly small problem; it was a big problem for Stash.
Keratoma? I have been around horses for 26 years and had barely heard of this, much less known a horse with this issue. All the research I did after his diagnosis showed pictures of horses missing sizable chunks of their hooves and long recovery times. Stash was always intended to be a lesson horse for the farm, and to this point, he'd had more down time than working in the program. What on earth was I going to do?
I personally didn't have the $2,000 (minimum) needed to fix him, neither did the farm. Even if I did, could I really justify spending that on a horse that I'd owned less than a year? Let alone, one that wasn't earning his keep? If I didn't fix him, that meant putting him down. I'd never put a horse down for something that was 'fixable'. It had only ever been for medically necessary reasons, such as degenerative conditions or colic. Could I do that?
Coming into winter, could I compromise the care of all the other lesson horses to try and do this? The odds were not in his favor. As sweet as he was, and no matter how much I wanted to; not only did I not have the money, I wasn't sure I could justify the expense. I just couldn't.....could I?
As I feverishly weighed the pros and cons, all the options and having pretty much decided fixing him wasn’t in the cards, I realized that something was poking at me. It was Brian. I couldn't get Brian out of my head. I kept coming back to him and Stash and the bond they shared during Summer Program.
Brian Hill was just another child in my Summer Program that summer. Only he wasn't "just" another kid. Brian is autistic.
When a college friend, whom I'd reconnected with through Facebook, approached me a few months prior about her children attending one of my Summer Program weeks, I was extremely hesitant. You see, all three children are autistic.
I was honest with her: I'm not a 'special needs' facility. I don't offer therapeutic lessons nor am I a certified therapeutic instructor. I wasn't sure about allowing any of them to attend. I wasn't sure if my staff could handle their needs or if my ponies could handle them. One thing of which I was sure, if they were going to attend, they all needed to be able to work and ride independent of a leader and side walkers just as the rest of the kids do. Even though Mom assured me that they could, I required an evaluation lesson prior to the program. Needless to say, all three passed my pre-session evaluation and were allowed to attend.
Brian was diagnosed with autism at 23 months of age. While he is highly intelligent, and what they consider ‘high functioning’, he can sometimes struggle with personal relationships as he does not read or respond to social cues well. At the same time, Brian has a compassionate spirit which has been more easily expressed through relationships with animals rather than his peers. He participated for three years with the Equi-Kids Therapeutic Riding Program in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Horseback riding has had a positive effect for him, as the activity of riding involves a whole body experience that helps calm and soothe him. The relationship between horse and rider also helps him with his interpersonal relationships.
I knew I was in for a challenge, but I didn’t realize how important this week with Brian was going to end up being for Stash.
In my program, all the kids are assigned their 'own' horse. In addition to daily lessons, the kids are responsible for the care, feeding, grooming and stall care for their horse for the week. Right from the start something told me to pair 10 year old Brian with Stash. There were so many little moments that made me smile at the pair that week; their lessons, Stash allowing Brian to guide him, the long grooming sessions until Stash absolutely gleamed and their end of the week trail ride together, to name a few.
But, there was one moment that stuck with me, the one that I couldn't put out of my head when I thought of putting Stash to sleep.
You have to understand, Brian was a gangly pre-teen kid- tall, scrawny arms and legs and all feet; add to that poor muscle tone, and let's just say he wasn't always the epitome of grace.
Every morning we bring the horses in for breakfast. This particular morning Brian was leading Stash down a small but rocky incline and tripped. It was a small trip. But, when he tripped, he went under Stash’s front legs. Stash tried hard to miss him but ended up clipping Brian's ankle with his hoof and Brian fell hard. As you can imagine it hurt, but with Brian's autism- it was more than just a little overwhelming. He got upset and started to 'meltdown' and cry. I was standing a few feet away supervising the kids leading horses in and saw the whole thing play out. I got to his side quickly to make sure he was O.K.. I watched as this young man struggled to get himself under control and calm himself. Meanwhile, Stash stood stock still a few feet away- just waiting.
As soon as Brian was able to settle himself a bit, he walked back to where Stash patiently waited for him. I watched in amazement as he hugged Stash's head and proceeded to reassure Stash that it was "O.K."; that he knew Stash didn't mean to hurt him. The entire time he's talking to Stash, Stash is allowing Brian to hug and hold his giant head to his tiny chest with half closed eyes; as if he were held like this all the time. As Brian was reassuring and talking to him, he never moved a muscle. They stayed that way for several minutes, just a boy and his horse. When the two were done talking, Brian picked up the lead, walked into the barn and they continued with their day.
We didn't know at the time how important this moment with Brian would be for Stash's future, that it would become his saving grace; we just knew that it was one of those moments we wouldn’t soon forget.
Three months later, when faced with the difficult decision to save Stash or put him to sleep, it was this moment I couldn't get out of my head. The picture of what a horse does, and can do, for a person. The memory of Stash’s half closed eyes, his head resting next to Brian’s chest with Brian’s arms wrapped around his head; as I had done so many times with my own horse when I needed comfort and reassurance. The memory of Stash’s patience, as he stood there giving Brian the time he needed to recover and the quiet reassurance that all was well; was one that wouldn’t go away.
The more I thought about the two of them and their time together that summer, the more I knew I couldn't do it. I couldn’t put Stash to sleep. Stash’s gentleness and patience with a kid like Brian doesn’t come along everyday. He deserved a chance.
Now, how to make that chance happen……
(to be continued)
** I’d like to thank my friend Shannon Hill for allowing me the opportunity to work with her son, Brian; for giving me permission to write about my observations of his time with Stash and for providing me with additional information to help me with my article.**