Saturday, at the show grounds, we wander over to the important ring, which is where the competition for the Hungarian Riding for the Disabled Foundation is taking place. The children who are participating have a variety of difficulties to overcome, from autism to muscular dystrophy to blindness. They ride ponies and horses, which belong to the Foundation, of various shapes, but mostly on the short side (“Easier on the therapists and assistants,” explains Peter Edvi, the director of HRDF). There are some wide, round Halflingers, (“Good for children with balance problems, but sometimes too wide for those with spastic issues.”) All are tolerant and kind-eyed as their small charges guide them through their rounds, which contain tests of balance such as simple vaulting moves like lying on the horse’s rump, or kneeling with arms outstretched, or direction and steering (maneuvering through a course of cones and rails) or hand-to-eye coordination (picking up a ball, transferring it between hands, and tossing it into a net). The crowd here is far larger than that around the dressage arena: there are hundreds of enthusiastic children and parents. There is prize money, too, and it goes to whichever riding program the winning children belong to.
There are no chemicals used at the riding school in case a child has environmental sensitivities. There is an orchard, and a rose and flower and vegetable garden, all organically managed. There is a small indoor arena, but I am told that they do not use it much, because of the particulate that hangs in the air. Someday they would like to build a more suitable indoor, but until then, everyone rides outdoors, regardless of the weather.
An autistic boy spies the glittering sun and moon stickers on my zoom lens (I put them there years ago so I could tell my camera apart from all the other identical ones in a World Cup press room). He is fascinated and excited because he recognizes the symbols, and I wish I knew the Hungarian words so that I could praise him or tell him… something. But I think it doesn’t matter, because both he and his mother are beaming.
Peter takes us on a tour of a hippotherapy Sensory Park. It is an acre of woodland with a variety of terrain changes. It seems simple, but the concept of riding a horse up and down a small mogul, or through a shallow pool of water (narrow, so that the assistants can continue to walk along side the horses) or just going from the natural footing of the woods onto a section of gravel, has huge implications for a child with difficulties. Changes in the balance of the horse, changes in the horse’s gait, or just the changing sound of the horse’s footfalls are all used as positive stimuli. There are stations set up throughout the woods that look like large birdhouses, and which contain a task to be done on horseback: take clothespins from the box and clip them to a cup; differentiate between smooth and rough pebbles. This bit of land must be such a gift to these children, I think. The greatest therapy for even an able-bodied rider is to walk through a woods on a good horse, and I can’t imagine the profound effect the experience must have on this group of riders.
After that, the dressage Grand Prix is anticlimactic.