Stories to Inspire

Karen McCoy on Horse

Finding Hope on Horseback

By Karen McCoy

The cool air that was tenderly kissing my face and gently blowing back my hair was heavenly. The acrid smell of the sea and everything living in it funneled into my nose, a welcome addition to my senses. I basked in the sunlight that warmed me every couple of minutes, as the puffy white clouds parted ways, leaving the clear blue sky exposed. I had anticipated this day and all these sensations for what seemed like an eternity. I was back on the Oregon Coast.

I was within a foot of the water that was dancing back and forth with the tide. The sky reflected its tranquil blue color in it. Until this day, I had resigned myself to never experiencing this feeling again. One of many that had been ripped from my life, against my will, thanks to a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis. Along with having to desist riding a bike, taking a hike in the woods, snowshoeing on crunchy trails, and various other outdoor physical activities I cherished.

I had gone through the grief process many times in recent years, grieving for passions lost and all those that would never happen. I was restricted to activities that could be accomplished in a wheelchair, as well as only those that didn’t take place in the elements that were anything but a perfect 70 degrees.

This trip to the Oregon Coast was my first in six years. While raising my two children, we had made frequent trips to these coastal beaches filled with tide pools, seashells, and other watery wonders. We had flown kites, dug in the sand, waded in the ice-cold water, and made countless casts of crab rings and fishing line into the salty sea. We had lugged all our camping equipment by foot, down precarious rocky trails to the sand, set up a fire ring, and made ourselves at home within earshot of the roar of the crashing waves. I could never do that now.

So when I heard about HOPE Equestrian Center, to be honest, I didn’t have much hope! A volunteer there had told me many heartwarming stories about how horses helped physically or mentally disabled children and adults. As a child, I signed up for horseback riding lessons, but suffered from childhood asthma and allergies, discovering I could not be within 10 feet of a stable. So much for that! I took the phone number anyway. I wasn’t working anymore, and I was extremely bored and becoming majorly depressed.

I called the number to HOPE, on a whim, a few weeks later. The upbeat, slightly rushed female voice I spoke with let me know the cost for an eight-week session.

“Can’t I just try it once?” I asked, slightly irritated. “I don’t even know if I can get up on the horse, or if my allergies will be a problem. Plus, the cost is way more than I could even afford…” On and on I babbled. I knew it’d never happen.

“No problem,” the angel on the line chirped. “We have all kinds of lifts and ramps to get all kinds of people up on a horse, and we have scholarship funds to help with costs. Just pay what you can.” I was filled with disbelief. Excitement rose in my chest.

Now, while enjoying the wonders of being near my beloved ocean, months after that phone call, I remember my first time in the arena at HOPE. I hadn’t been on a horse in 40 years. But as I feel the movement of the horse I’m riding on now in my own hips, and marvel at the glorious beauty of the Oregon coast, I remember how my spine immediately aligned after I had hoisted my stiff, tired body into the saddle. I felt like I was comfortably sitting in an easy chair custom-made just for me. My posture was perfect and my hips were moving in what was the closest thing I could get to a natural gait.

Miraculously, not only had I apparently outgrown my childhood allergy to horses, but I had gained a new outdoor physical activity that I had never experienced before. The diagnosis of MS turned out to have at least one blessing in disguise: I never would have attempted anything such as this had it not been for the series of events that led me to HOPE.

Now that I’ve told my story of how I got started riding, I will fast-forward to the present. My son and I had driven over yesterday, through spotty bouts of rain, and spent the night in a local hotel. As we awoke this morning, it was clear and the sun was rising amid bright blue skies that were dotted with florets of cottony clouds. We dressed and headed towards the stables. I was as excited as I could be, giddy with anticipation. I was confident on a horse now. I had ridden my adopted therapy horse, named Solfari, with my hands off the reins and my eyes closed. My balance was improved. No allergies were threatening my breathing. In spite of losing the ability to bicycle through a forest, or snowshoe in the snowy mountains, I could ride a horse! I could potentially visit all those places again, on the back of a trusted animal companion.

Another aspect to this story involves the emotions attached to the fact that I get to share this transcendent event with my son, Cale. Now 23 years old, he has become a mature and thoughtful adult. He has had to endure more hardships than most other young men his age, right along with me. But he has been a source of support and constant joy in my life. I hope he realizes how much I appreciate the fact that he travelled here with me, helping me with all the mobility issues I deal with now. I hope that he can somehow sense how much it thrills me that I get to share this particular horseback ride with him.

Riding a horse has given me light in my life where there hadn’t been any for many years. Using my body and feeling the ache of muscles being used to work again, fills me with great satisfaction. Knowing that I can get outside, in the air, and smell the sweet scent of nature in all her perfumed perfection, creates a desire to thrive deep within me.

Although I can’t run along the water’s edge, chasing my little boy with a handful of seaweed, what I can do is follow my grown-up son on horseback. I can sidle up next to him by pulling gently on the reins… and tell him over the crashing sound of waves hitting rock… to never give up. There’s hope in everything.