The gravel crunched under the weight of my wheels, and for a moment I held my breath fearing my chair would tip over as one side was lifted as it went over a rock. But my chair righted itself and I continued down the path to the barn. I was certain I could see my heart pounding against my sweater. I hate to admit that I was scared, but I was. I had told my mother to wait in the office. Since the accident, I had needed her help so many times to do so many things, this I wanted to do by myself.
I had met Lucy, the riding instructor, when I came here two weeks ago to visit, and I recognized her at once as the only familiar face. I wheeled over to where she was standing inside the barn with a saddle cradled in her arms. She told me to wait while Chelsea, the horse I’d be riding today, was being tacked up. I was too embarrassed to ask what that meant. Then Lucy walked out of the barn into the stable. A flash of color caught my eyes as I sat there. Someone was flying a kite in a nearby field. I watched as the kite dipped and then shot straight up. The kite moved across the sky like a ballet dancer, but thinking about it, it occurred to me that the kite couldn’t move on its own. It needs the wind to lift and carry it, and it was connected to a person who controlled it. My thoughts were interrupted by another girl walking into the barn, leaning heavily on a crutch. I sat and she stood for about five minutes in silence before I saw Lucy return to the stable area, now leading a horse.
“Am I riding Garfield again today?” asked the girl with the crutch as soon as she saw Lucy, and Lucy nodded. The girl smiled broadly. “I just love my Garfield!” she said, turning toward me.
Lucy brought the horse over to me. “This is Chelsea,” she said, and then addressing the horse, “Chelsea, this is Clara, she’ll be riding you today.” She turned to me again, “Do you want to pet her? She won’t bite you. Just be really gentle.” I reached up to stroke her nose. She snorted and I quickly pulled back.
“Chelsea, have some manners! You’ll have to wait a few more minutes, Clara. There was a mix-up in the tack room,” said Lucy.
I nodded, “OK.” Lucy walked Chelsea over to a post and tied her to it, then she walked back past me and into the stable area. I drummed my fingers on my helmet, which sat in my lap. I watched the girl with the crutch still leaning against the wall. She was looking into the arena watching the lesson that was going on now. Suddenly, she turned to look at me. This startled me, and I hit my helmet, sending it rolling off my lap. I peered over my knees and looked down at it. I tried to reach it, but I knew that was pointless. The girl with the crutch saw me and started hobbling over to help. “Oh, no, you don’t have to . . .” I started to say, but she just shook her head and stiffly bent down to pick it up. Then I realized that she did have to, not her in particular, but anyone. I couldn’t even pick something up by myself, I felt so useless. The girl slowly stood back up.
“Here,” she said, handing it to me.
“Thanks,” I replied. “
I’m Helen,” she said, and then pointed to her knee. “Just had surgery done last month. I used to ride a few years ago, so now I’m riding again to help it get stronger.”
I nodded and replied, “I’m Clara,” but refused to tell her why I had come.
She didn’t seem to mind. Garfield was brought out and Helen gave a little shriek of delight, and rushed over to him the best she could, wrapping her free arm that wasn’t holding her crutch around the pony’s neck. “Isn’t he just adorable?” she asked me.
Then Chelsea was untied and brought over. Seeing her this second time, with her saddle on and ready to go, made me realize how nervous I really was. Although she was a small horse—maybe a pony—she seemed big to me, looking up at her.
“Over here,” said Lucy, as she began to lead Chelsea over to the mounting ramp.
I followed behind and wheeled up the ramp. Helen followed behind me. I moved my chair as close to the end of the ramp as I possibly could without falling off, and two of Lucy’s helpers helped me stand and swing my leg over onto Chelsea’s back. I’m so high up! I thought, and as I looked down at the ground oh-so-far below, it was like being at the top of a Ferris wheel. Then Chelsea began to move. It was only one step, but it felt huge and I lurched forward in the saddle. I nearly screamed. Chelsea took another tentative step. There was a big thing moving me and I had no way to control it! “I’m gonna fall off!” I said, as Chelsea was taking her third step.
“Relax,” said Lucy. “You’re not going to fall. See,” she motioned to the two side-walkers who stood on either side of the horse holding onto the saddle, “they won’t let you fall.”
“Yeah, we won’t let you fall,” repeated one of the side-walkers. Lucy handed the lead rope over to a girl who had just arrived, and then Lucy walked into the center of the arena.
“Helen! Take the outside. Work on what we were practicing last week with trotting. Kari, bring Chelsea into the center.” My leader nodded and led me into the middle as Helen began to circle the outside ring, her leader barely holding the rope; she didn’t need side-walkers.
“This is your first time on a horse, right?” Lucy asked me.
“Yes,” I said timidly.
“Well, then first you need to know what you’re doing. Do you know what these are?” She pointed to the reins in my hands.
“Of course,” I said, “reins.”
“Good, that’s all you need to know right now. All we’re going to be doing today is just walking. We’re going to have to go real slow, but hopefully if what your doctor told us is right, you could be walking again in maybe only a few years.”
I smiled. I couldn’t help it. Walking. I’d been living in my wheelchair for over a year now, and I didn’t know how I could endure it for a lifetime. What I wanted more than anything was to walk again; and this horse Chelsea was going to help me to. I felt my fear melt away just thinking about that.
Kari led Chelsea to the inside ring and began to slowly walk her around. This is actually kind of fun, not too scary, I thought. As Chelsea walked, although I couldn’t actually feel her, I could feel the motion. It traveled up the reins into my hands and continued through my arms. It went up my back and neck. 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4 . . . went the rhythm of her steps. Hey, this isn’t hard!
“You’re really good,” said one of the side-walkers. “It probably won’t be long before you’re doing this by yourself.”
By myself. I couldn’t wait; there pretty much was nothing that I could do without even a little help. I always had to be helped in some way . . . but riding? By myself? Like a regular kid? With no help at all? I could imagine I already was. More than being able to walk, I wanted to be able to do things by myself again. The first step Chelsea took was my first step in regaining the independence I once had, to “get better,” and although the journey would be of a thousand miles, I was more than willing to do it. I glanced up and saw the kite still dancing in the sky.