Rani, our 20-year-old bay pony, is the enticement. When he sees her, Vimbai, a young man with autism, gets off the bus. It is Monday morning and we are hosting students from the Riverside Stimulation Centre. They have never seen horses before, let alone touched them. And we are ready to show them a good time, to work with them, perhaps even get them to ride. But first we manage to terrorize them with our dogs, who stand in ready anticipation and wagging tails waiting to greet all these new, interesting people!
Some of the students are terrified, so scared that getting off the bus is a challenge. They cringe as they walk past the dogs. They jump back if the dogs wander towards them. And they are reluctant to touch the horses – at first. On so many of their faces you can read two warring emotions – fear and an eagerness, a desire to try. Our job is to wait and see which one wins.
I show Vimbai how to hold out his hand to Rani, to step up to her shoulder, to reach out and touch her, to just feel how warm she is. He does what I suggest, reluctantly running his fingers down her spine. But as I give him the reins to hold, he suggests that he take her for a walk. When he takes a step Rani moves towards him and he is both terrified and amazed that she follows him.
One of the big life lessons that I keep having to learn is one related to fear. Fear can cripple us just as effectively as any physical or mental disability. If we let it, fear can define our lives wholly. But if we manage to conquer it, on the other side waits fun, kindness, and even love.
The desire for a new experience makes these students brave. But it isn’t just that. It is also the horses and the confidence and calm they exude. They stand there – all of them, patient and tolerant, while we surround them, patting, fluttering, stroking, talking. In their own quiet animal way they give of themselves and it works. A few minutes around the horses and most of the students ask us to ride. They line up wearing their helmets, eager to get on.
A walk around the stables with Rani is enough for Vimbai to decide he wants to ride. He takes my arm, not a tight grip, but a light hold for reassurance. We get a helmet and we wait in line and Vimbai gets on Guiness. He is terrified. “I’m going to fall,” he says. “We’ve got you,” we tell him and we do, Evans and I on either side holding his legs. Vimbai holds on to Evans the whole time, but he also keeps saying, “Yeah, let’s go! Let’s go!!” When we tell him its time to stop he says, “No. Let’s go!”
Every one of us who worked with those students on Monday has similar stories. Because these minor miracles of people overcoming their fears, pushing through to the other side and taking home an experience that fills them with incredible joy was happening over and over for all of us.
And, yes, there were a few who never made it off the bus. This time their own fear held them back. But maybe next time in a different arena or even this same one, they will be able to step off the bus.
Volunteers on Monday
Sandy Evans – who also brought a giant box of biscuits
Cynthia Coetzee Louw
Joeleen Sissons – who also made incredible bite-size cupcakes