Last night I had the incredible honor of being the guest speaker at the Windrush Farm Gala. I've written and spoken about Kathy and my experience as a volunteer, but I never dreamed I'd be asked to speak in front of a crowd of hundreds. I was glad I could hide my shaking knees behind the podium. The standing ovation was a shock, but what really tugged at me was receiving one of Kathy's Special Olympics gold metals from her family afterward. -cjh
Many of us are here tonight because we’ve seen the transformation a loved one has enjoyed as a result of their Windrush Farm experience. We’ve heard stories of first words spoken, emotional wounds fading, and physical sufferings lifting. The Windrush experience is often the catalyst for remarkable growth–physically, socially and emotionally– in the client rider.
In ways big and small, Windrush makes an impact beyond its split rail fences and pastures.
I think of the Windrush experience as a pebble thrown into the middle of a pond. Its impact ripples outward and touches more than just the rider astride a horse. Of course, the first ripple of Windrush’s effect is felt by the families. They can see the changes in mood or movement in their loved one up close.
|Kathy won this gold metal at the equestrian|
Special Olympics. Her family gave it to me
after this speech. I will cherish it forever.
But, the ripples keep expanding.
I started volunteering at Windrush because I’m a horse lover without a horse. I had six horses growing up and missed the sweet tangy smell of a stable and the oily grit of horse under my nails. A friend told me about an incredible, positive place that welcomes volunteers.
Enter Windrush into my life. Or should I say, enter Kathy.
I met Kathy Blanton five years ago. She had been riding at Windrush for close to ten years and I was a new volunteer horse handler. I knew horses. I knew nothing about Kathy. We were paired with an independent-minded pony named Bearito. I knew what to expect with horses and I could handle Bearito’s moods. I didn’t know what to expect with Kathy. She greeted me that first day with a nod and a look that told me she was sizing me up. Kathy no longer needed sidewalkers and could balance in the saddle independently. We got to work. The hour lesson was just Kathy and me, each learning about the other.
I was surprised and pleased when, a few weeks later, Kathy asked to work with me exclusively each week. I didn’t know then that a magic spell had been cast. Something profound changed in both of our lives.
But mostly mine.
I had never worked with anyone who had special needs and didn’t know what to expect. I was there for the horse grit, right? Each lesson–when she’d walk into the arena and greet me with her arms outstretched and that huge thousand-watt smile–we would each learn a little more.
Kathy was a tease. She’d pull my ponytail or take my hat. We’d laugh at our successes and laugh even more at our failures. As a horse handler, my job was to make sure to keep the rider safe if the horse did anything unexpected, so I was never out of reach. Kathy loved to trot, but I think she loved making me sprint around the arena beside her even more, laughing as I caught my breath. Steering the horse to nudge me into a freshly deposited pile of poop was a special delight for her.
I developed a deep respect for Kathy and saw her through the prism of what she could do rather than what she could not. She wasn’t a diagnosis. She was a person.
She learned to feel like an equestrian, complete with knowing that the road is filled with failures, but it’s the failures that help us forward.
In that special alchemy that happens inside therapeutic riding, she gave each lesson the full extent of her abilities, pushing up to and beyond her limitations. How many of us approach our challenges this way? She learned to do a posting trot, unclipped, independent. Free and able.
She was capable of so much and we kept trying more. Early on, she began helping me by leading the horse back up to the barn, taking the bridle and saddle into the tack room, and brushing out saddle marks. Then she’d help me lead the horse into a paddock or stall. After, we would walk arm-in-arm back down the hill. Sometimes we’d have lunch together in the gazebo. Sometimes she’d show me something special in her life – pictures of swimming lessons or family gatherings. I suspected these brief moments were a ploy for us to spend more time together. I didn’t mind.
In the outer ripples of Kathy’s Windrush experience, I learned about the power of the human spirit and never to take for granted the gifts that each of us has when we allow ourselves to give. . . or to receive. In that gazebo, I received the first short stories Kathy had ever written and published them on my blog. She was thrilled when I told her I namedcharacters in my last novel after her—a horse handler named Kathy, a priest named Father Blanton. Windrush Farm and Mandy Hogan got a nod, too.
Kathy wanted to do more. She wanted to create and write more.
Her experience continues to wash over and through me.
It’s with some irony that Kathy’s challenges were a result of surviving Eastern Equine Encephalitis as a young child. That often fatal virus – in the news so much now – may have taken a physical and intellectual toll on Kathy, but it did not dim her spirit and she lived for more than fifty years as a vibrant, funny and loving woman. It is with profound grief that Triple E finally succeeded in claiming Kathy’s life by being a significant factor in an incomprehensible series of events this past winter.
Kathy changed me and we never would have known one another if it were not for Windrush Farm.
Her family is doing something remarkable in her memory and Kathy’s experience continues to ripple outward, impacting others in ways large and small.
Thank you, Blanton family and Windrush, for being the pebble and the pond, and for letting me be just a small part of this story.