Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Saved By A Horse

Anyone who has read me regularly knows how much I love horses, and animals in general. This is a lifelong love affair I've been having, though it was interrupted by time spent up North, going to school, and all of that. Oh, and my knees, which ended my riding career back in high school (and no, I cannot ride with the knee replacement, either, sad to say). There is just something about horses that is, well, not to sound trite, but magical.

Because of my love of horses, my old friend, Connie, sent me the following LA Times article by Bill Dwyre, "Old Racing Horse Is A Winner With Autistic Boys." It is not news, of course, that animals are helpful to children with all kinds of issues, from cerebral palsy to autism. Heck, therapy animals are pretty much standard at many hospitals and nursing homes (where my mom was, there were a couple of dogs, and a cat).

This story really touched my heart, though, and I wanted to share some of it with you:
In horse racing terms, Grant and Greta Hays have had a rough trip. They have two young children, both severely autistic.

"After we had Jack, we wanted to have another child," Grant Hays says. "We thought the odds of having a second with autism were really low."

Jack is 6, Dylan 2. Neither speaks, except on rare spontaneous occasions. According to their father, they are antisocial kids, which is not unusual with autistic children. Grant says it creates a life of stress and tension, and cites research that says something like 85% of parents with autistic children get divorced.

The marriage of Grant and Greta apparently is going in the other direction. This is the story of how and why. It is also the story of a big, old gelded thoroughbred named Spot the Diplomat, who, through a series of coincidental circumstances, has carried this family to its own winner's circle.


He was owned most recently by Summit Racing, of which Bob Ike, nationally known handicapper and columnist, is a partner.

After two strong races this spring for Summit, Spot fractured a sesamoid in a workout and his racing career, but not his life, was over. While he healed on a nearby farm, Ike and his partners started thinking about a permanent home for him.

Spot had a decent career as a racehorse, though, as the article points out, not one that will land him in the Hall of Fame. But with his career cut short by injury, the owner had to find somewhere for him to go (and thank heavens that is the route the owner chose). So, how did this family see Spot run (couldn't resist)? Through work, as it turns out:
Ike occasionally filled in on one of the Sunday morning racing shows on AM 830, where Grant Hays was a producer. Hays knew lots about radio, but little about racing. But he, like an entire nation, had been captivated by the Zenyatta story and had started to pay attention.

Last spring, Hays took his family to a horse ranch in Texas run by author Rupert Isaacson, whose book on autistic children interacting with animals, "The Horse Boy," was made into a movie. The Hays family spent time around animals and began to see the positives of interaction that Isaacson wrote about.

This is the first I have heard of this book and the movie. Perhaps you have heard of them already. I know I'll be checking them out. Back to the Hays family:
"Jack speaks no words," Grant Hays says, "but we got off the plane and he turned to me and said, 'Texas.' I was stunned."

The family stress level decreased dramatically there, but went right back to normal when they returned to Los Angeles. Hays asked another of the radio hosts, Jay Privman, about the chances of taking his sons to see Zenyatta. Privman arranged it, Zenyatta was quiet and gentle with the boys and they returned for another visit. Trainer John Shirreffs soon had them up and riding on a stable pony.

That experience convinced Hays that his family needed a more rural life. He was also convinced that he needed animals, and probably a horse, for his sons. Deciding to live off savings for awhile, he leased a three-acre plot south of Austin, Texas, and started shedding the trappings of life in L.A.

"We got rid of four TV sets," he says. "We live in a single-wide mobile home. It is a lot less than we were used to in L.A."

In a conversation with Ike before he left, Hays said he was looking for a horse. Ike said he and his partners had one.

They all went to see Spot the Diplomat at his rehab farm near Murrieta.

"Jack stood directly behind the horse," Ike says. "I was kind of scared. Thoroughbreds can be touchy. But the horse never flinched, and I knew then that this might work."

Grant Hays says, "Dylan ran under his legs and Spot never twitched."

Zenyatta - what a wonder she is. Her reputation of being gentle is once again confirmed.

Anyone who has been around horses knows can understand Hays' concern. Things happen with horses that can be unexpected. A fly can be biting, and the horse will raise it's leg to get it off. I was clocked by my horse while grooming him because he shifted position while I was brushing his foreleg and my head was in the way. It wasn't his fault, it was mine. (And yes, I learned my lesson from that one.) The most experienced horse people can have things happen when a horse gets spooked, or doesn't feel well, or is cranky or whatever the case may be. Especially a race horse, which can often be highstrung. That is why this is so remarkable.

But horses are also smart, and like the dog who comes and places her head on your knee when you are upset, or the cat who lifts you up by their antics, horses can be a rock, a steadfast companion, a therapist, if you will:
Spot the Diplomat had a new home. The Hays family had another 6-year-old. The horse was shipped to Texas, paid for by Summit Racing, in late August. That was a month after the Hays family had arrived.

"In Los Angeles, we were a stressed-out family," Hays says. "Now, we are all happy. The boys are constantly with Spot. They play around him, ride him, sometimes sit on him for two or three hours at a time.

"He is an angel. He is perfectly behaved at all times. He's protective of the kids. It's almost phenomenal."

Hays says they have found a place where his children are happier. He says all the doctors and specialists they saw provided very little direction and insight.

"So we created our own world," he says... (Click HERE to read the rest.)

I completely understand. Even though I can no longer ride, there is something about being in the company of a horse. You would not believe me if I told you how much I pay a month to stable my horse, Jordan, and for all of his medicines and supplements (he turns 28 in January), but I can say this: it is worth every penny. I would pay twice as much for the joy, the comfort, the sheer delight I get in seeing him, in grooming him, just taking him in (as well as visiting with the other horses, mini horses, and pony at the stable). No matter the cost, no matter the joint pain for me (knees, shoulders, back), no matter what, it is worth it for this:

Sounds like the Hays family feels the same way. They are another family saved by a horse...


Greta Michelle Johnson said...

Thank you for your appreciation of our story and respect for our sons.
~Greta Hays

Rabble Rouser Reverend Amy said...

Truly my pleasure. Thank you for sharing this moving story. All the best to you and yours!