Tuesday, January 24, 2012

My Pony Days with GallopNYC

by Natalie Keller Reinert

Around here, Wednesday is Pony Day.

On Pony Day, I put on my barn clothes (old flare-legged jeans I never wear anywhere, green t-shirt, Aeropostale zip-up someone once gave me, apparently believing that I was a seventeen-year-old high school student) and my Ariat paddock boots (which, in contrast, I wear all over the city) and hop on Florence, my purple bicycle, to ride over the mountain to the stables.

It's not really a mountain, but when you have grown up in Florida, having to ride up the ridge that bisects west Brooklyn really feels like conquering Mt. Everest. When I get to the summit, at Prospect Park West, I expect to see Victorian-mustachioed mountain climbers celebrating their victory with their sherpas, but it's really only the Italian bakery and that French place with the "fromage" sign in the window.

Riding down the hill on the other side is an exercise in faith: faith that one's vintage bicycle has modern brakes; faith that no one will decide to open the door of a parked car at just the wrong moment and flip you heels-over-head. It's a very steep hill, with a blind curve.

The view in Prospect Park
Then there's the pedestrian bridge over Ocean Parkway. Can you bicycle up and over a pedestrian bridge? Answer: if you stand up on the pedals and nearly kill yourself in the process.

All that should be adventure enough, but my destination lies just at the foot of the pedestrian bridge, and after I've fought with my bike lock for five minutes, it's time to actually get down to work.

Because friends, there are ponies in that there building!

I think one of the coolest things about my neighborhood is that it's a ten-minute bike-ride from a stable. I can't ask for a lot more than that. There aren't very many stables in New York City anymore, did I just get lucky? There's even a dressage arena in the corner of the park where we enter. So nearly every time I go to the park, I get to eavesdrop on a riding lesson.

(It's a real chore not to offer suggestions, too. The tragic life of an ex-riding instructor.)

Rider and volunteers in the ring at Kensington
The ponies of Pony Day live at Kensington Stables, where I volunteer with GallopNYC to do, well, pretty much whatever they want me to. I help move the carriage out of the "arena," a small square space where horses can get a little free time, roll in some dirt, and riders can almost execute a twenty-meter circle. I groom horses before their lessons. I seek out lost girths and match up stirrups and leathers. I do gloriously horsey things.

Then the students arrive.

GallopNYC is a therapeutic riding organization that operates out of two riding stables in New York City: one in Brooklyn, and one in Queens. Most of the students have developmental disorders. They might not speak clearly (or at all), or be obsessive about odd things and find it hard to focus, or have other symptoms that make it impossible for them to lead an independent life.

I think the only logical thing to do with someone who never gets to feel independent is to put them on a horse.

I mean, what do horses make us feel? What magical keywords show up again and again when we gush about why we ride? Here are three: Freedom, and exhilaration, and flight. Here is another: power.

Yes, I've walked this big mama!
Imagine those feelings to someone who is always being minded, someone who will always have to be cared for and guided and instructed like a child. It must be like rising up on their own wings.

The biggest and brightest thing you see during a therapeutic riding lesson is the smile on the rider's face.

The second brightest thing is the smiles on the volunteers' faces. We get an almost unfair amount of pleasure out of this work. Oh hi, I groom horses, hold them for a boy while he and his instructor saddle them up, and then walk and trot the horse around the ring while he practices posting and two-point and throws beanbags hilariously all over the arena. I know, I know, I'm a hero.

Or I am just having a really great time?

The only thing better than waltzing around the tiny arena at Kensington is walking a tacked horse down the street and around an elaborate traffic circle at the southwest corner of Prospect Park (on a marked horse-and-rider lane, mind you) and into the trees of the park. There, a beautiful meadow called Bowling Green has been set aside for GallopNYC. This is a real treat, because with all the space, riders get to trot more than a tiny circle, and I have found that my riders really like to trot.

No matter how worn out and grouchy and behind-deadline I am (and I am usually all three of those things) after two hours at the stable, I'm completely revived. There's so much energy, and enthusiasm, and excitement crammed into those two hours. There's so much happiness and accomplishment.

I used to think that therapeutic riding required skills I didn't have. It turns out I couldn't have been more wrong. No, I'm not in anyway educated or certified in working with developmental disabilities. But I can walk a horse. And, believe it or not, not everyone can do that!

GallopNYC has a great Facebook page, by the way, full of horsey content. Give them a "like!"


Laura Crum said...

What a great post. It makes me smile just to think about it. Such a wonderful thing to do and a joy, obviously, as well. Thank you!

joycemocha said...

Grin. Maybe I should get my therapeutic lesson certification and go pro with this. Given that I do have a Special Ed teaching license...seriously, if I could figure out a way around the startup costs of insurance, I'd start an academic tutorial/home school/horse program for kids with learning disabilities, ADHD, mild autism and emotional difficulties. Problem is, there's not a big market for this sort of thing where I live.

Hmm. I think I have my blog post topic for the day.

Natalie Keller Reinert said...

You could put together a non-profit and fundraise for it that way!

I thought at first about trying to train to be an instructor, but I'm not sure I have the patience or the nerves required for it. I'm perfectly happy to walk my horse :)

Linda Benson said...

Awesome post, Natalie. You took me right there. And I LOVED your description of why riding is therapeutic for people with disabilities - it gives them wings, and a feeling (however fleeting) of power. Bravo to you for doing this!

Dreaming said...

Loved your post! No one realizes the magic of the horse until they see something like this! I volunteer at a therapeutic center out here. I'm thrilled to know there is one so close to you... in 'the' city!
My parents lived in Manhattan years ago. I rode at the stable near Central Park a few times. My mom wanted me to board my horse there during the summer so I could live at home with them!
I have also thought about becoming an instructor. I've downloaded the information twice. But then I decide I rather like being told what to do and making myself helpful. I don't want the pressure, anymore, of being 'large and in charge'!!
I'm so glad to meet another volunteer! Love those horses. Love those kids!

Natalie Keller Reinert said...

Dreaming, I totally agree with the "large and in charge" statement! Haha, I have always been a leader, but the just show up, keep my mouth shut, and do as I'm told approach is another way to keep this a relaxation tool instead of adding to my laundry list of projects...

Suzy Marquard said...

Thanks Natalie for that wonderful post. You truly captured the spirit of Gallop NYC. And thank you for all you do for Gallop NYC and its riders.

Alison said...

Loved this post, Natalie! I hope lots of people read it. Thanks for volunteering. I know how hectic life gets.

Francesca Prescott said...

I love your vivid writing; your enthusiasm and love shines through. What a wonderful thing to do!

RiderWriter said...

I think it's terrific that you're doing this, Natalie! I live near a very good therapeutic riding facility and I've often thought that if time were no object, helping out there as a walker would be neat. (I have too many other volunteer commitments right now)

I do have a question, though: are you yourself doing any riding at Kensington Stables? I would find it extremely difficult to not want to get on a horse... :-)

Sac Hermes Birkin said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Natalie Keller Reinert said...

@RiderWriter I haven't yet gotten on a horse! There was a tantalizing moment today when it looked like none of the students were going to show, and I thought it might happen... then they BOTH showed AT ONCE and that was a whole other level of chaos! LOL

You hang out around horses long enough, somethin'll happen, right? I'll get on one again. I know it.