Animals, with their silent, non-judgemental, totally unconditional acceptance of, and love for, their humans, have the capacity to make an immense difference in human lives, especially for those who feel isolated, constrained and misunderstood for any reason.
I was fortunate to observe this when I was a volunteer helper with Riding for the Disabled (RDA). Some moments stick forever. There was the absolute delight on the face of a young boy, James, whose body was twisted by cerebral palsy, as he was lifted onto “his” pony’s back (he always had the same pony companion) in a special hoist, while his trusty steed stood in stock-still patience at movements around him which would usually have prompted him to jiggle and shy away. There was the overwhelming sense of achievement at James’ graduation from being hoisted into the saddle to using a mounting platform. The feeling was shared by all the helpers on duty that day, amongst whom there was a general glad dampness around the eyes. The sentiment seemed to be shared by the pony, going by his encouraging whinnies while still standing with the usual stock-still solidity he reserved for James and his other special riders.
There was dear dopey Boris, a carthorse gifted to RDA. At first glance he seemed an impossible choice for a disabled rider. The immense distance from his back to the ground was guaranteed to result in broken bones, at the very least. Yet in all the times I had the privilege of leading him, he never once let a rider fall, no matter how limited that rider was in maintaining his own balance in the saddle and his own control over the reins. Boris’s endearing dopiness, which often had him plant his huge hooves absentmindedly on my feet as I removed his tack and fed him, turned into infinite patience and gentleness with a disabled rider on his back.
Then there was the horse that moonlighted as both a teaching horse in regular riding lessons and as a RDA mount. The duality of both riding him and leading him was a study in horse whimsiness. In riding classes, his greatest delight was to yank on my hands and arms until I was sure he would pull my shoulders from their sockets. One Saturday, I was due to lead him for a disabled rider a mere hour after yet another pulling session. I watched in horror as a man without legs was helped into the saddle. All he had to stay on were his thighs and his arms. Even worse, that afternoon was scheduled for an out-ride, not a lesson in the safe confines of the riding arena. I took the lead rein with arms still aching from the mischievous tugging contest, and said my prayers. What happened? Barely so much as a twitch of the horse’s ears. The capricious beast had had his fun with me. He knew perfectly well when fun was over and attention to his job was paramount. I remember not knowing whether to smile or to curse him.
Those, and other experiences, have given me the greatest respect and admiration for therapy animals of all kinds, and for all kinds of human needs. In writing All of You (sequel to Road to Nowhere), a puppy fated to be a therapy dog did her very best to sneak into the story. Alas, the book was radically overflowing its boundaries, so the theme of a therapy dog could not develop, but endearing Goldie deserves her moment in the limelight. Here is the scene in which she meets Geoff’s sister, Megan …
“Goldie realised that there was something different about her even while she was still suckling from her Golden Retriever mummy’s teats. She knew that she was meant for something different from the brothers and sisters suckling alongside her. She knew that she was meant for something special, even while she was still too little to be given a name by a human. She had barely started drinking and eating from grown-up bowls when a girl human with bouncy curly head fur the same lovely colour as her mum’s, bent over the basket in which she lay snuggled up with her siblings. That head fur, the same colour as her own too, set up an immediate connection. She sniffed the human’s hands, then felt herself lifted up close as the human touched her human nose against her own damp puppy nose. She sniffed the human’s face and neck, too. Mmm, she smelled good, in a human sort of way. The little pink puppy tongue came out and licked the human’s face. Mmm, that tasted good, too.
She knew enough human language by now to understand that this human’s name was Megan and that she was looking for a dog for her brother Geoff. Then there were some other words that she didn’t yet understand. Disabled. Lonely. Depressed. She hadn’t heard those words before, but something about the sound of them made her little puppy heart ache. Nuzzling against the girl human’s neck, she hoped the brother looked and smelled and tasted and felt as nice as this one did. If he did, then she knew that she could make his achy feelings go away; she knew that she could make him happy.”