Posted by: Mike P. | January 28, 2010

The Maryland Horse Expo

Over in the about me pages, I mention that I contracted Transverse Myelitis in 2001. This left me with a spinal cord injury that makes it difficult to walk. As part of my recovery, I started therapeutic horseback riding in 2005 at the Freedom Hills Therapeutic Riding Program with Renee Luther as my primary instructor. Sometime in 2006, my daughter Annie started to ride. My wife Bonnie also enjoys horses, but seems happier to just be around them. Maybe she figures someone needs to maintain unbroken bones just in case!

Last weekend, Annie and I were given the tremendous honor of riding in the main ring at the Maryland Horse Expo where we demonstrated the idea of a physically challenged parent able to share in a physical activity with their child. Horseback riding isn’t the only activity of this sort that we can try. Many people using wheel chairs, or canes as I do, ski, scuba dive, race cars, etc. But, horseback riding is the activity that we have chosen to share in. This is the story of this event.

Some background. I’m an OK rider when I’m loose. Sometimes my muscles get very tight because they lose contact with my brain – I think. Upper motor neuron damage. At any rate, the more I ride, the better a rider I become. Perhaps new motor neuron pathways are being constructed. It is even possible that if I continue to ride and improve, I may be able to compete in some aspects of horseback riding against able bodied riders. That is my personal goal. It is fairly unlikely I will be able to do all aspects of three day eventing well, but I might be able to pull off a decent dressage test. So much of dressage is mental and your ability to communicate with the horse, that if I can manage to loosen up enough to accept the roll of a canter, I should be able to do more. Time will tell.

For the Expo, my coach Renee Luther felt we should do something fun. Dressage, while very interesting to those that know the sport, can be a little like watching people play chess. Great if you understand chess; not so great otherwise. We searched around for music and my wife Bonnie came up with Hakuna Matata, but we did not use the Lion Kingversion; we used another with lyrics that made more sense for us. I wish I had a link for the version we used, but anyhow, the words were good, the spirit fun, and most importantly, the song has a strong 1-2 beat that is about 70bpm.

A 1-2 beat is important because we planned on doing the entire ride at the trot. We were not sure how the horses we were riding would respond to being in front of a crowd, so we wanted to minimize gait changes as much as possible. Horses, once you get them moving, will tend to keep on moving with the same gait – with some important exceptions as we will see.

The ride type is Pas de Deux, which means that we are supposed to perform a mirror ride of each other. Lets see if I remember. Enter A, left C, 10m circle at E, 10m with pirroette at X, ice cream cone on the diagonal, crossing at C, 10m circle at B, 10m with pirroette at X, ice cream cone on the diagonal, serpentines from C through X, ending at A, KXM diagonal, to A, centerline to just before X with Annie in front, me, just behind her, 10m circle left, meeting back on center line just before X (Annie would be just after X), to C, E, 10m half circle to slightly left of G, down left center line, halt, salute at C. So, aside from looking up some spellings, I wrote that easily from memory. Annie did the opposite pattern. So, when I went left at C, she went right and did her first circle at B.

We practiced that ride for quite a few sessions. About 5 lessons, usually 3 times. Maybe a little more than that. We got pretty good at nearly meeting on our circles, decent centerlines, and meeting correctly at either C or A. Annie figured out some creative ways to slow her pony and wait for me without being too obvious. We figured out when to call for certain changes and how to decide to handle the meeting situations so we did not collide. Horses do not like running into each other, and there is the minor issue of us getting between the two. One day, we almost hooked legs – that would have been painful!

The horses we were riding are a breed known as Norwegian Fjords. Technically, they are ponies. I was riding Nina and Annie was riding Sunny. Nina is a strong, strong horse. When she sets her neck, there is almost no way to bend her without using a really aggressive bit, which we choose not to do. Remember, she’s also a therapeutic riding horse, which means all manner of people and children ride her, some with behavioral issues who like to randomly pull on the reins.

Our first ride was Saturday night, around 6:20 pm. It gets dark around 5pm this time of the year, so when I went outside to the practice ring, it was just getting dark. Nina had all sorts of energy from being kept in a stall for most of the day, so we went bounding around the ring.

Nina is a dominant mare, and that means she keeps watch. All the time. And as we got near one end of the ring, I saw a dragon appear. Well, more like a MARC commuter train, but for a pony that jumps when deer appear unexpectedly, a train, in the dark, is a sight. She was OK when the first one went by, but when Sunny jumped a little for the second, that’s all it took. Sideways, down, and up she went, sending me up in the air. Annie did not actually see me come off Nina, but she did remark, with a laugh, that she saw me flying through the air. It was a pretty decent fall. No forward speed, but good height. Fortunately I managed, accidently, a nicely styled roll over and landed across my shoulder blades. Not too bad. A little winded. A suspicious brown spot on my coat, too. Wonder what that is? Hmmm. Probably should toss that in the laundry. Anyhow, I got back on, and sensibly stayed in the other end of the ring where there were no monsters for the rest of our warmup.

Nina, Myself and Renee in the Practice Ring


Sunny is also a Fjord. She is a bit smaller than Nina, and was donated to the riding program by a wonderful woman from California. Sunny moves out well and seems to be a nice solid pony. She is a little less nervous because after all, she has Nina to protect her. When the MARC train came by, my wife saw Sunny buck a little, but Annie says she never felt it.

So, as you can imagine, I was a little tense after having gotten dumped during the warmup. Did I mention that I do not do public performances, generally? Annie has been doing dance recitals, gymnastics performances and she plays the Oboe. When the Oboe section in 5th grade band does a piece, it is not hard to guess that this is pretty much a solo for her. Usually some light accompaniment on the piano. So, she has much more performance experience at age 10 than I do at age 48.

After the practice ring ride, we have a 100 meter or so walk down a narrow corridor. On one side are a number of curtained off stallion stalls full of horses just begging to have their way with cute ponies like Nina and Sunny, and the other side, all sorts of spooky things. We call them doors, but ponies think of them as magic places were dangerous things jump out. And there was plenty of concrete and steel for her to drive me into. Fortunately, Ellie, Renee’s daughter, had a good grip on the lead rope and nothing bad happened. The wait before the performance was a little touchy, too, with all the other performing horses moving in and out of the main ring.

The Saturday performance. Well, who knew. Turns out I had memorized the program using the objects in our home ring as pointers as to when to turn and the like. I got into the main ring, and within 30 seconds, was riding a different program than what we had practiced. And within a few more seconds, was more or less riding randomly. Nina must have been on an adrenaline high and decided to crash about 2/3 of the way through, so I was trying to figure out if I was riding poorly, which would slow her, and where the heck to go. Finally, I got near enough to Annie that we could go down center line and halt, salute. What-a-mess. But, I do not think too many people minded. They seemed to understand the point of the demonstration was not that I am a great rider, but rather this is the opportunity that therapeutic riding offers. The ability to do some physical activity with your dad. And watch him make a total wreck of it. This is what most other kids have to go through, why not mine!

Later on, one woman remarked to me that she wished she had a chance to do something like that with her dad. So, even thought the ride was not the best, the point was not lost.

Sunday morning. I had enough of trains and stubborn horses, and besides, Nina had been inside all night and was bound to be full of energy. So, when Renee’s daughter, Ellie, decided to do an exercise ride, I was perfectly fine with not riding. Ellie has been riding for probably 15 years or so, and is a Pony Club HA rider with significant eventing experience. She took Nina up to the ring easily enough, but it turns out that Nina had developed a strong attachment to Sunny. And the ring’s gate was open. Remember me mentioning Nina has an unbendable neck? She took Ellie through that gate in a flash and they went at a near gallop through the stall area and back to Sunny. Only one person besides me saw this, so I explained to the rather bemused spectator that this was not something planned and that Nina, while not as tall as draft horse, has a neck like one. So, this time, both horses were brought to the ring, and exercise went normally enough. And Sunny was safe under Nina’s watchful eye.

But, this brought me to a decision to change how we started the exhibition. First, no practice for me in the outdoor ring. We had a number of experienced riders helping us; there was no reason for me to do it. Second, that walk down the corridor was unnecessary. I just needed to get to the ring with enough time to spare; I did not need to do it on horseback. Annie and I arrived about 45 minutes early and snuck in near the place where we would enter. We talked about the program numerous times and mentally practiced it until we were certain of what we were doing. We didn’t really need to ride it – we had done that plenty of times at home. We just needed to make sure we knew the ring’s orientation. It was really a lot fun practicing with her. I really had to listen to her because, quite frankly, she was right either most or all of the time.

The ride. Well, it went as well as we have ever done it. There were no mistakes in the choreography, and the riding itself seemed to go well. I was not really watching Annie, but she is a good rider anyhow. I did not have any trouble keeping Nina moving; most of our meets were where they were supposed to be. I am not certain how straight and clean the center lines were. I know they weren’t awful. It is funny – you would think riding a straight line would be easy. Until you actually try it. Anyhow, it was truly wonderful.

A ride I hope to remember forever. Particularly since the video camera failed on both days, so it pretty much only exists in my mind and in those who saw it!

A special thanks to Denise from the Maryland Horse Expo for working with MCET and making this ride possible. And to my wife Bonnie for choosing the music and editing it to fit the program, and for supporting me in all my crazy ideas. And to Renee for coming up with the idea in the first place, her coaching expertise and her support. Also, I’d like to thank Ellie for giving up her weekend to help us with the horses, and to all those from Freedom Hills and Rolling Hills Ranch who came down to lend a hand. And, of course, Annie.

Nina, Annie, Mike, Renee, Ellie and Sunny


  1. Once upon a time i used to help my uncle lead tourists through the barrington tops. A series of large hills and plateaus which are still some of the most beautiful country i have ever seen, and sometimes we’d just set out for a few days me and him. You really got to know your horse, and moreso, each other. Hope you got that brown stain out okey! 😀

  2. glad someone was able to video the event–it looked just perfect to me. paula

  3. Saturday -> Sunday.

  4. Hey, Ginny Gaylor made a video. I think this was taken on Saturday.

    Animoto looks interesting.

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