WEvery time I meet someone who grew up disabled in Australia, there is only one key thing I want to know about them. I follow the movements of the small talk, feign interest in how their day went, wait a respectful amount of time before derailing the conversation with the question I’m dying to ask.
“Hey, did you have to ride a horse too?”
It is one of the great tragedies of life that “hippotherapy” has nothing to do with hippos. If I, at eight years old, had received riding lessons, I think I would have grown to be a very different man. More confident. More self-confident. Persimmon would probably be more prominent in my wardrobe.
The boring reality is that hippos are all about horses (hippopotamus derives from the ancient Greek word for “river horse”), and it is the horses that have to do with hippotherapy.
When it comes to treatment options for a child with a congenital muscle disease, the mind does not instinctively jump to the horses. However, therapeutic horseback riding, or hippotherapy, gained the emphatic approval of my neurologist, my physical therapist, and my occupational therapist.
Such is their popularity that Riding for the Disabled Association (RDA) centers, moderately affordable for non-aristocratic disabled people through government subsidies, can be found in all states and territories of Australia. Because of both the ubiquity and these subsidies, I found that Australian adults with a disability are almost as likely to have grown up riding horses as Australian adults who were child actors at The Saddle Club. I mean, quite likely.
My local center in Perth was called RDA Capricorn. His stables and paddock were located next to Perry Lakes Stadium, the multipurpose sports complex built for the 1962 Commonwealth Games. He was a somewhat ironic neighbor. Perry Lakes was the place where my healthy classmates played basketball, where the interscholastic carnivals were held where I couldn’t compete. I doubt that many people knew that a short distance away, hidden among eucalyptus trees and on a discreet dirt road, was a group of crippled teenagers on horseback.
I would go downtown once a week, wearing a RM Williams knockoff on my little flat feet. I’d head inside where they kept the helmets and try to find one that fit. Then he went around the back, his boots digging into the wooden mulch, where there were a series of ramps that led to platforms of varying heights.
The platform he used depended on the horse he was riding that day. Instead of trying to get on a horse with strength they did not have, each boy walked or rolled his wheelchair onto a platform that roughly matched the height of his assigned horse. You would climb into the saddle with the help of a volunteer, who would almost invariably be a horse-obsessed teenager whose time and generosity were rewarded with the opportunity to ride for free after all the disabled children had gone home.
In my first year or so, I always rode Albert. It was an old pony, relatively low to the ground, white with mottled gray spots. Later, when I gained confidence and skill, I rode Apollo, a suitable horse, much taller and more muscular, with a brown coat.
In each session, we would circle the rectangular paddock a couple of times, then cross from corner to corner, in and out of traffic cones, and jump over small obstacles. There was something exciting about turning your steed with the slightest pull on the reins, leaping, shifting gears at a brisk trot. What I enjoyed the most was the sheer novelty. Finally, he was in control of a capable body.
However, the jury is out on how much riding can actually help disabled people.
One of the first recorded people to postulate the health benefits of horsemanship was Hippocrates (who also has nothing to do with hippos), around 400 BC. C., who called it a “natural exercise” that benefits the body, mind and spirit. However, on a separate scroll, Hippocrates wrote that for those with a passion for horsemanship, “the constant shaking of their horses renders them incapable of intercourse.” As someone who once landed badly on the beat of a jog, I can say (in a slightly high-pitched voice) that this assessment has some basis in reality. If I were a conspiracy theorist, I’d say that’s why the government pays for it – it’s all part of a long game to prevent cripples from infecting the gene pool with our unsatisfactory DNA.
A cursory Google search tells me that another key believer in horse therapy was Lis Hartel, a Danish dressage champion who contracted polio in 1944 at the age of 23. Paralyzed below the knees, she continued competitive dressage against medical advice, becoming the first woman to win a silver medal in an Olympic event open to men and women. She credited horse riding for improving her polio symptoms and began advocating for hippotherapy for disabled people after retiring from the sport.
The official RDA website states that hippotherapy helps develop “postural control, balance reactions, balance, coordination, and spatial orientation.” A 2015 medical article tells me that it has been used to treat “autism, cerebral palsy, arthritis, multiple sclerosis, head trauma, stroke, spinal cord trauma, behavioral disorders, and psychiatric disorders,” although “the efficacy of Hippotherapy for many of these indications is unclear. “
I think? The truth is that I don’t know if it helped me. In theory, it probably improved my core strength, in the same way that sitting on a yoga ball improves core strength – the changing stability awakens the deep, moth-eaten muscles in my abdomen. But I certainly didn’t realize this at the time. It is difficult to assess progress or decline from within a disability, especially in childhood. It’s almost impossible to compare yourself to how you were six months ago, because all you want to do is compare yourself to your friends and your bullies, and that’s all they want to do right now.
My mother was a fan of all of this because I finally found a physical activity that I was okay with. My older brother was a boy athlete, he played soccer and basketball, and received more valuable ribbons, trophies and player certificates regularly, placing them on a shelf above his bed. As part of her tireless efforts to make sure I never felt like I was living a watered-down version of childhood, Mom went to a store to order personalized horse-shaped trophies (marked as “achievements” of an indescribable variety), and awarded them biannually.
When I decided to stop riding for good, I think Mom was more upset than I was. But she respected my autonomy and agreed that the fact that she drove the last nail in the coffin of my riding career – an accident, no one’s fault, but I was too scared to continue riding – was a reason. enough to call him in peace.
Even now, I have a strange affinity for horses; partly because of the afternoons I spent with them as a child, and partly because, as with humans, a horse’s value to society is inextricably, though unfortunately, tied to its ability. It doesn’t take much more than a vague understanding of the story and a little imagination to figure out that if they could, skilled people would melt the lame into glue.
Beyond that, I am glad I was lucky enough to grow up doing something, anything, surrounded by other disabled children.
At school, all my friends could (as did my enemies). I tried so hard to try to hide the gap between our abilities. In horseback riding, I never had to disguise the strange way my shoulders buckled, my strange gait, the strange way my hands gripped things. It is exhausting to fight the way you naturally exist. The spaces and moments when you can relax and discover what your body really is like are sacred. And that’s what riding gave me.
That is why I like to ask other disabled people if they also practiced horse riding. In a world where you can feel incredibly different from everyone around you, it’s comforting to find people with whom you share a perspective, an identity, a diagnosis, or an experience.
• This is an edited excerpt from Growing Up Disabled in Australia, edited by Carly Findlay and Published by Black Inc Books
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism