Bentrotting

My boy stands still in the middle of the kitchen with a little grin on his face and a faraway look in his eyes when my girl asks him what he is thinking about.  “I was remembering what it felt like to canter yesterday,” he replies.  My boy with the gentle soul also possesses a speedy streak.  He loves to barrel down the driveway on his Green Machine and spin-out at the bottom and is known to be heavy-footed when driving his Grandma’s golf cart.  Now, he has discovered the thrill of riding fast on a horse…

For a number of years now, my boy has taken to horseback riding as a form of exercise and therapy for his autism.  For the most part, he has remained content with walking around the ring on his horse, slow trotting and doing a few very low jumps;  however, after attending an inclusive horseback riding camp this summer, my boy got a taste of what it feels like to ride a bit more independently and fell in love with idea of competing in shows to win ribbons.  “This is going to be my sport!” he declares boldly.  “I want to learn more than what I am doing in therapy riding.”

So, naturally, when my boy with autism expresses a keen interest in something that is good for him in so many ways, I seek to figure-out a way to start the process of transitioning him to regular riding lessons.   Someone willing to teach him lessons on the weekend (his energy is spent after a long day at school during the week), at a reasonable price, and, ideally, one-to-one.  I mention my boy’s desire to Helen, the owner of the therapeutic riding center, and she jumps on it immediately, setting us up with one of the regular riding teachers at her barn, a young lady named Sophie with a soft, sweet spirit.

Several weeks later, we arrive for my boy’s very first “regular” lesson, a big milestone on his journey.  He has the whole inside ring to himself and performs each and every request with great pride and confidence.  Midway through the lesson, my boy’s horse unexpectedly goes into a canter with my boy hanging-on, mouth wide open.  When they come to a stop and my boy realizes that he is okay, he excitedly shouts, “That was fun!” With great valor, he shares his cantering experience with friends and family in the days that follow.

All geared-up for his next lesson the next week, my boy is likely dreaming of flying across fields on his horse, just like the boy in one of his favorite movies, The Black Stallion.  Only this time,  my girl is joining him for his lesson.  My boy and girl.  When the going gets tough, they totally have each other’s back.  At the same time, they are brother and sister and each possesses a healthy dose of competitiveness with the other.  My girl participates in a variety of other sports and enjoys doing some riding when she is not in the midst of swim season or basketball season.  It can be tricky when she rides with her brother, as riding just comes a bit more naturally to her, even though she does not ride as often.

You can imagine how devastated my boy feels when his younger sister is able to get her horse to canter and his horse refuses.  He even tries switching horses with my girl, but still, he cannot get it to canter.  By the end of the lesson, my boy leaves in tears, feeling totally defeated.  Over the next week or so, he lugs this discouragement around with him, a heavy load, and it becomes the topic of many conversations.  My boy wants to feel like this horse thing is all his.  He wants to be special.  He hates how autism makes some things harder for him.  We talk a lot about how he is special just because of who he is, not what he accomplishes.  And how there is enough “specialness” to go around for everyone.  We talk about how, yes, it is discouraging to see others be “better” at things we want to be good at, but, that in life, there will always be people who can ride better, sing better, write better, etc.  And sometimes, we have to be content with enjoying the journey while we learn the skills to become better.  The important thing is that we persevere.

With these understandings, my boy returns to his lessons several weeks later with a renewed sense of calm and resolve.   He listens patiently, when the instructor reminds him to keep “quiet hands” as he steers the horse.  She breaks-down the process leading-up to cantering into bite-sized pieces so that he can digest the instructions more slowly.  And when the time comes to try to canter, once again, my boy does as he is told and squeezes the the horse’s belly with his outside leg, but then he awkwardly pulls back on the reigns, confusing the horse, and stopping him from going into a full canter.  With all his might, my boy holds himself together while Sophie soothingly explains what  happened.  “Just try to relax,” she says.  “The horse senses your anxiety and knows that you’re not quite ready to do what you are wanting to do.  If you can be patient and become strong on the little things, you will eventually reach your goal.”

I love how this instructor speaks truth to my boy.  Even more so, I love how my boy internalizes her words and applies them to other areas of struggle as we drive home.  “It’s just like math at school, Mom.   I get all anxious about not knowing how to do something and then it makes things harder.  But once I relax, I usually get it!”

I can learn a lesson or two from my boy.  Sometimes, I get all inspired by these great visions of what I want to do with my art, my writing, my life in general, and I want to be there yesterday.  Just like my boy, I start to feel discouraged that someone else is  a lot further along the journey than me.  I am learning, though, to pull myself back to Center and relax.  To become strong in the little things.  To trust the process. And one day, I too, will canter. When I am ready.

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