Anne Walters, the writer of this first-hand account, has just completed a three-month volunteer position with Freedom Firm and will be returning in February 2009 as Freedom Firm's Horse Therapy Coordinator. She will bring her love, skills, and knowledge of horses to develop the program in Ooty. As I entered India, I wasn't sure what to expect from the interactions between the girls and horses, but I looked forward to giving it a try. When I first met Hira, the oldest of Freedom Firm's ponies, he greeted me with pinned back ears and a half-hearted attempt at a bite. What a start! During my first effort to work with the girls and the ponies together, the girls were tired, disinterested, and passively rude to the point that we called it quits and took them home. Strike two. Chalk it up to bad timing and a steep learning curve. One of my duties included planning weekend activities. When I announced that Saturday would involve the ponies, I was met with an outburst of "No Didi (sister)! I no going!" complete with tears and tantrums. Wow! Strike three?
I found myself standing on a very different playing field than what I was accustomed to at Crystal Peaks Ranch in Oregon. In India, horses do not enjoy the same status as playmate and fellow competitor. Instead, they are viewed more as a livelihood or a street-side pest. The girls of Roja had grown up in a culture surrounded by extreme and repeated betrayal. They seemed to have little concept that an animal could relate or be a companion. They possessed an understandable resistance to new things that required a level of trust. Still, there are truths of relating that can be taught through horses that cross over borders and language barriers. In the beginning, I introduced the girls to the need for trust, understanding, and respect when working with a horse. I tried to help them find ways to relate it to themselves. It felt like trying to paddle a hole-ridden canoe upstream. Yet the occasional giggle, grin, or focused eye gave me hope. Gradually, the girls warmed up to the ponies. One late-summer activity was braiding flowers into their manes and tails. The ponies wore these decorations very well despite the fact that they are both boys. Hira was purchased from a local horse guy. We know little of his first years, but he bears a large scar across one hind leg and dislikes being touched. This was a good challenge for the girls, both to help Hira trust them and to gain experience being trustworthy leaders. Hercules is a stunted one-year-old whose beautiful dark coat is finally taking dominance over the peach-colored fuzz he's worn since his starved beginning. His mother died at birth and he was dropped into Mala's care as a tiny starving foal. His story was familiar and therefore intriguing to one of the girls. I directed her to young Hercules and relayed his story, knowing that she had recently given up a baby for adoption and would perhaps find some solace in this young "baby." She wanted to know more about how his mother had died. Later that week I discovered that she had also lost her mother at a young age; it seemed she was relating to Hercules as a fellow orphan. Weeks after her original outburst of "No Didi! I no going!" the same girls were sitting astride the horses, clutching the hand of a counsellor for dear life, with excitement in their eyes, smiles, and joyful squeals.
As I reflect on the hurdles passed and the many that still remain, I am convicted that before each of us there are good gifts set out by our heavenly Father. We can choose to spurn them with mistrust and self-protection or humbly challenge ourselves to embrace them to see what will be learned. The girls of Roja are very gradually choosing the second, more difficult option. Sometimes it's in a one step forward, one step back fashion, but I've been taught to look for the try, the effort at growth, more than the outcome. In witnessing these girls, I am challenged to continue trying myself.