A Good Boy

Photo by Nate Pesce..Matteo Taliaferro, 7, of Odenton, has his gloves put on by his mom Tanika Taliaferro, before his morning therapy session, with helmets lined up in the foreground for riders..Hippotherapy sessions at Maryand Therapeutic Riding (MTR) in Crownsville utilize horseback riding as a method to improve neurological function, sensory processing and physical ability. From Flickr, Fort George G. Meade Public Affairs

BY CHRISTINE BENSON

Lewis is a person—just like you and just like me. Like us, his sameness is completed by those things that make him dazzlingly unique. He is young, a boy of maybe nine years and six months. His frame is delicate, and when he walks along the barn aisles he does so miraculously without noise or disturbed dust. His breathing is quiet and steady. The rhythm of it calms the horses as he brushes them, a metronome of warm air keeping the time of his universe. 

Lewis’s gait is short and punctuated, but his cadence remains graceful. He walks slowly so that he might rotate his head on its axis, pointing his eyes to scan each facet of his environment. The deep pools of his eyes drink in the world, though what he sees is often left a mystery to us—a private reverie only for him. His experience of this complex world that surrounds him is sometimes warm and comforting like an oversized blanket, but at other times it tangles him within its heavy folds, suffocating. 

In the worst and most intense moments for Lewis, when he finds himself crushed by the world around him, his arms stiffen at his sides and his eyes grow wide. In these moments of panic, he transfers all of the weight in his minute stature to the very tips of his toes, his fists ball at his waist, fingernails cutting into the heels of his palms, and he lets out a sound that is terrifyingly and simultaneously whisper and yell. Lewis repeats this same word over and over, in a voice that is both scared and stern, “No.”

This panic is familiar to me. I have observed the same in the nervous prancing of the horses when something gets behind their bad eyes. The tense muscles ready to snap at any moment, the holding of breath and widening of eyes, the assessment of the situation that precedes an urgent and reckless escape, the flight animal reminding whomever is unlucky enough to be nearby of their place when it comes to a contest of strength (should we be foolish enough to engage). Just like the horses, when Lewis is afraid you can see the whites of his eyes all the way around his startling blue irises in those moments of intense fear.

Photo by Nate Pesce..Matteo Taliaferro, 7, of Odenton, smiles during his morning ride with licensed therapist volunteers Deb Taylor, right, of Crofton, and Emily Downey, of Annapolis..Hippotherapy sessions at Maryand Therapeutic Riding (MTR) in Crownsville utilize horseback riding as a method to improve neurological function, sensory processing and physical ability. from Flickr

As equal as his capacity for fear is a sense of wonder. It is as though the world is something that is both hugely overwhelming and enticing, beautiful and terrible in the infiniteness laid out before him. Where we might see an otherwise empty room, familiar tack covered in a thin layer of dust leftover from a long weekend without attention, Lewis sees something more. The look on his face is as though something were projected atop the mahoganies and blacks of the saddles and bridles lining the walls, something draped over the deep and intoxicating smells of leather and citronella. The room has taken on a whole new array of flavors for him. These things that he experiences are not delusions or imaginings. His intensity, his attitude speaks to me that what is real in his experience is indeed just as real as the saddles, heavy and warmed by the arid Texas heat, as real as the sticky grain rolling between my fingers as I mix in the corn oil into Bo’s dinner. His experience, quite simply, includes things beyond my own.  

At the end of one summer evening, horse and human bodies alike shimmered in the heat of the humid air of the central Texas Hill Country, despite the sun already having dipped below the horizon. Lewis’s eyes lit up as he beheld a single, long piece of dry alfalfa hay, somehow different than the other thousands that littered the floors and stalls and our clothes and our hair. He picked up the straw, holding it to the light, examining it carefully, a treasure-seeker reverently inspecting a long-lost tiger’s-eye diamond in the remaining fingers of sunlight that lazily poured themselves through the long slats in the barn’s roof, light that delicately grazed the floors of the barn’s long aisle, teasing across the doors of the stalls and their inhabitants with a last breath of evening sunshine before we would all be folded up in twilight. Bathed in the fading light, Lewis held his treasure aloft, the deep pools of his azure eyes shimmering, a smile spreading across his face as he realized that what he held was something long sought-after, finally found.

As I looked on in curiosity, Lewis watched the piece of straw transform in front of his eyes, turning it in his fingers. During the long space between one wondrous moment and the next, he popped the straw into his mouth as one whole piece with a noise of delight. I felt some guilt as I took it from him, just catching the end of the alfalfa before he consumed it like a long piece of uncooked spaghetti, golden and quivering between his lips as he quaked with silent peels of laughter. He saw something I couldn’t see, something delicious and unique, something to be savored. I would never know what it was he saw at the foot of the towering altar of hay bales, what the last light of the evening sun lit up in his raised palms.

One important and distinct fact that must be weekly-remembered (and weekly-reminded) is that Lewis is afraid of horses. Every week, he arrives with his mother so that he might overcome the fear within his mind in order to improve the strength of his body. Fifty two times per year, Lewis finds the resolve to sit up high on the back of an animal a hundred times his size, to practice the peculiar balance beyond simply standing on one’s own feet, to stretch out muscles that would otherwise wither and fall into atrophy, to connect with beings outside of his own magnificent experience. And though we help him, we are just little humans standing below with our arms ready to catch his small form were he to fall. But he is still afraid. He sees something that we do not see. 

Lewis is not irrational in his fear of Bo’s four big hooves, his oversized nostrils over their gnashing teeth, his large and well-muscled body, at the same time both very long and very tall, his rolling eyes, ringed in white, the primal clue that, at any moment he could take flight and crush us all. Lewis sees all of these things, and he is right to be afraid. 

Photo by Nate Pesce..Volunteers Emily Downey, of Annapolis, left, and Charlie Martinez, of Marriottsville, lead Matteo Taliaferro, 7, during his hippotherapy session..Hippotherapy sessions at Maryand Therapeutic Riding (MTR) in Crownsville utilize horseback riding as a method to improve neurological function, sensory processing and physical ability. From flickr

After weeks, we have become accustomed to the hooves, to the teeth, to the massive space that Bo’s weight occupies. We are not afraid. Lewis reminds us of the importance of respect for his fear and for the herd of dangerous animals and for the hay we feed to them and for the light that illuminates each dark corner and all its cobwebs.

At the end of the night, Lewis has ridden Bo over the trail behind the barn, up and down hills and through the river and across the field by the road. His fear had not left him, but as Lewis’s hips circled with the motion of Bo’s stride, releasing long-tensed muscles in Lewis’s small legs, he relaxed and looked up into the purpling sky, clouds spreading out over the horizon like a bruise. 

Lewis started a short monologue about a crumbling kingdom, a long and drawn-out elaborate chase, and a crown that he pointed to with his small and steady hands. His sight stuck towards the top of the moontower. He could see something in the tower’s striking geometry. Excitement reflected in his eyes as he whispered hurriedly to Bo, his words so low that I couldn’t make them out from only two feet away. Lewis had seen something again, bright and shining, something that, with Bo, he could share at last.

Something that we could not see. 


Christine is a middle school teacher and a lifelong horse-lover. Her equine journey started in horse camp to the hunter ring and eventually volunteering at a therapeutic riding center in her home of Austin, Texas. She couldn’t be happier helping people to find their own healing through horsemanship.