Stock Show Epiphany

February 10, 2011

In January, a friend of mine and I brought my kids to the National Western Stock Show.  It’s one of those things that I take for granted, because I live here and I go each year, but for whatever reason, my kids had never been.

My 7 and 11 year-old girls were excited the moment they learned we were going. Jumping up and down was followed by questions of what “the show” was going to be like.  My 9 year-old son, on the other hand, was far from excited.  His idea of a good Sunday afternoon, well… let’s just say NOT watching free reining at the stock show.

We parked and headed in through the stockyards. Here was perk-up #1 from Liam.  We were walking on elevated walkways and could see the whole stockyard and events center.  Next we hit the lower level of the Expo Hall. This is usually where I get excited.  Seeing all the ranch owners and cattlemen—cowboys and girls, in their wranglers with prize-winning belt buckles, cowboy hats, boots, and western shirts–grooming the steers and cows to the last little hair, with hundreds of dryers, clippers, brushes and combs.  I love to see the fuzziness of their show-hides and their beautiful broad backs and soft eyes.  The trust and level of knowledge and showmanship is always evident in the lower level.   It smells good—a combination of animals, food, grooming products and steam…it smells like stock show, close up.

Next up, we got some food.  What is the stock show if it’s not an epicenter for carnie-treats?  Foot long hot-dogs, cotton candy, ice-cream, popcorn, nachos, steak-on-a-stick, soda, lemonade…and of course the appropriate adult-beverages. (After all, it was after noon!)  Now, my once-skeptical son is a stock-show junkie.  The rest is just icing on the cake.

After eating in the arena during a youth cow-showing event, we strolled through the expo hall and checked out all of the “stuff for sale”.  Cowboys showing kitchenware; fine craftspeople selling beautiful house-wares and artwork; the sleep number bed folk, of course—what kind of trade show goes without a place to lie down; and all varieties of hats, clothing, tack and leatherwork.  Huge trailers, stock fences and feeders line wall after wall. In-between, of course, there are mounds of horse-themed stuffed toys, rubber band shooters, and various other eye catchers aimed at the young—or young at heart.   Once the kids were satisfied with my final “no’s!” we moved toward the Events Center where our ticketed event was showing. Free Reining–a show featuring the western reining horse.  All of the riders choreograph their own routine, but have to include a set of required moves—sliding stops, lopes, flying lead changes, leg yielding, galloping, turn on the fore/hinds and general ease of transitions.  Riders ranged in age from 13 to 60 years old.  We saw paints, appaloosas, quarter horses, and more show their skills.  Rider’s expertise ranged from those willing to ride bareback and bridle-less to those with the full-on reining show-gear.  Some pairs dressed up in silly costumes—Kiss; a medieval princess; Charlie’s grandpa-from Willie Wonka; a crazed-bronco fan.  Some wore classic western show-gear.  All rode with grace and pride.  Their horses performed out of the love they have for their discipline as well as the obvious mutual respect for their riders.

Here is where I get a little choked up.  I am always a horseperson.  Wherever I go, I look for and find other horse-people.  I am usually humbled by the realization that I know very little of what there is to know about horses.  I’ve never put in the countless hours of training, ground work both on-line and freestyle, and hours under saddle that make the bond between these pairs so obvious.  Every time I see this, it makes me wish I could devote more of my time to my horses.   Instead, I have dappled in horsemanship.  I have learned how to work with my horse-partners in a safe and effective way for the job I ask them to do.  Still, in all of my inexperience, I am no less impressed with the manner in which my herd does their job, day in and day out, in all kinds of weather, different environments, and with the varied ability of clients they carry astride.  They get hit, yelled at, cried on, thrown off balance, and corrected by handlers.  In turn, we sometimes remember to throw in a pat. Maybe a rider brought a carrot.  If they’re really lucky, a client spends some time with them after dismounting.  Usually, after a client’s session, all the horse manages to get is a “good-boy/girl”, or “thanks” by a handler, occasionally a volunteer or client.   They don’t complain.  It is enough to serve.  And they never fail us.

Day after day, they give us the moves we ask for, the patience we require, the soft eyes that draw rider and handler, alike.  They exhibit the strength—both physical and emotional–it takes to carry our off-balance riders.  The winds blow, and the horses lower their heads and walk on.  Snow accumulates under their horseshoes and sticks, but they steadfastly move forward, circle after circle.  Summertime sun beats down on their hides and I’ll be darned, but they still trot on.  They generally don’t act out, misbehave, or show anger.  On the rare occasion that they do, it’s likely because their bodies hurt and we’ve still required them to work.

When people ask my opinion of why Hippotherapy works, I usually get in to the science behind the answer.  The things we therapists are trying to “prove” to insurance companies, providers and caregivers.  The facts about vestibular system, 3-dimensional pelvic mobility, core strengthening, midline-crossing, cerebro-spinal fluid circulation, feedback loops.  We quote research papers, studies in specific disciplines, talk about effectiveness within diagnostic groups.  What I usually leave out is what I’ve been thinking of and feeling lately.  What is so important—critical, really.  What none of us can fully understand or explain.

I skip telling them about the bond—the connection—made between the client and the horse.  The horse.   Our tool, our friend, our pet, our partner—in this amazing , tiny world of hippotherapy.   “It” works because we have horses. Not therapy balls, not bolsters, rolls, mats, modalities, or biofeedback.  Our tools are living, breathing bits of energy and emotion and pure magic. Combine that magic with a little therapeutic knowledge and mutual respect and watch the results.

That’s why it works.  Let the horses show you.   And if you’ve never been, check out next year’s stock show.