Little did I know that my love of horses would one day develop into a passion for healing the broken hearts of those burdened by trauma. As a kid I spent hours combing through books on pony care, studying color charts, memorizing body parts, and learning the many breeds of the world. If I needed to get somewhere quickly I much preferred to canter than to run, and for those of you who are snickering I can tell you, it is the best secret I know to winning a 3-legged race at the church picnic.
As a teen, horses were my escape. An ugly divorce left my sister and I running for cover. A long ride on a fast horse, the wind in our hair and tears streaming down our faces, soon become our sanity. Nothing else mattered during those precious times at the ranch where I could snuggle into the warm neck of a beloved horse and just be free.
Not many years later, as a psychology student at the local university I was asked to work with a young lady in the school’s equestrian program. Confident in my riding ability I was flattered at the offer and quickly accepted. The following week I was excited to meet my new “student.”
As I approached however, it was clear that something was very wrong. This girl was blind. Apparently, she had suffered a tragic accident that had left her sightless since the age of 5 and her family was now desperate for a way to help lift her out of the deep depression that had left her virtually immobilized. I quickly introduced myself, found that her name was Kimberly, and excused myself to find a horse suitable for her to ride.
I returned momentarily with a horse by the name of Feather. She could be sassy at times but would be safe with a beginner on her back. I handed Kimberly a brush and began to groom the small mare, watching to see how Kimberly would handle herself. To my surprise she methodically began to feel her way around the horse, brushing thoroughly and finding small clumps of dirt that even I had left behind.
We talked about her accident, her seeing eye dog, her depression and her need for independence. She asked me about the horse that she would be riding and without even a second thought, I explained that she was 8 years old, red roan in color, and had only a hint of a mane and tail. “Red?” she asked. “Red, like a wagon?” “Not quite” I laughed, as a realized that her only experience of color was that of a child.
The next several months were amazing – for both of us. Kimberly was determined to ride and be “normal” and I was forced to look at the world from an entirely new perspective. We spent hours on the trails and she even learned how to navigate a small jumping course on her own. The lessons we learned those months we spent together with the horses were to change us forever.
Kimberly learned that she was much, much more than just the tragedy in her life.
I learned how to just be still and really listen, to see more than my eyes could ever show me.
Kimberly learned that deep within her very own heart was the power to succeed beyond even her wildest dreams.
I learned to look far beyond appearances, beyond what seemed to be so obvious.
Kimberly learned what if felt like to trust.
I learned how to be trustworthy.
Kimberly learned that there really is no such thing as “normal.”
I learned the incredible power of experience and relationship and adventure.
We both learned what it was like to ride blind. We learned that we have the ability to choose what we do with the hardships life gives us. We learned the healing power of horses and all that they have to offer us. We both were incredibly changed and have never looked back.
Kathy San Filippo has been working in the field of Equine-Assisted Growth and Learning Programs for 35 years. She has her master’s degree in Counseling Psychology, specializes in the treatment of trauma, and in 2006 founded the Rocking Horse Ranch, an industry leader providing experiential therapy to the greater San Diego area. The Ranch is a non-profit charitable organization offering Equine and Animal Assisted Therapy (using a small herd of rescue animals), adventure therapy and EMDR, in conjunction with CBT and DBT techniques.