Dust floated in the hot, humid air as children sat atop horses, circling an outdoor arena. Instructors called out techniques, like reverse and follow the leader, and the riders would turn around and zig zag behind another rider.
"Nichole, can't you ride independent?" the instructor asked.
"No, I can't."
"Yes she can," the instructor said to me. "She's just being stubborn."
After a few more prods, I unclasped the lead from Boomer, a quarter horse, and let Nichole ride. She looked good. She knew when to pull on the reins to slow Boomer down and how to turn him.
Nichole was my buddy for the day. And while I continually told her how well she was doing, and she continually told me how bad she was doing, she still rode. I'd look up, and I would catch a smile on her face. She was loving it.
My day at O.A.T.S. (Offering Alternative Therapy with Smiles) started with some art projects with Nichole. I was a bit nervous after meeting her. It's been a while since my baby sitting days, and I haven't had a lot of time with children. Many tend to be shy around new people. My goal was to get her to talk with me and have some fun.
We talked about her sister, her pets and her favorite color — light pink — while we colored exotic animals out of large books. I told her about my first dog, Dodie, and how I would feed her bologna while I paint her toenails a bright red.
At O.A.T.S. there is no sitting around. Children with either cognitive, physical or both disabilities are encouraged to be active, even if they aren't riding. One young man did not want to do arts and crafts, but the volunteers encouraged him to try.
"No, I don't want to do it," he repeated.
"Just try. It's good for your hand muscles," a volunteer urged.
Many of the volunteers are matched with a buddy. And while I feel fairly confident around horses, I was a bit nervous to be in charge of one carrying a young child. Luckily, at O.A.T.S., there are helping hands that can walk alongside and offer instruction. A blonde, lithe, twelve-year-old girl helped me, talking up a storm as she manhandled Boomer when he tried to go off the beaten path. She, too, has a love of horses, and wants to own a ranch in Wyoming with her friend when she grows up. She's kind to the the camp kids, but she's no slouch.
When it came time for Nichole to slalom the orange safety cones, and she refused, my little helper did not back down.
"Well, you have to do it. The instructor said so."
And after a couple more loops, Nichole started to take control.
O.A.T.S. is a gem in Oakland County. For a while, I thought maybe I had left the metro Detroit area as we walked along wooded trails outside of the arena. Volunteers led the horses for a bit more than a half-hour. If I had been concerned about getting in some exercise for the day, I certainly wasn't after leading Boomer. Small circles of sweat were forming on my shirt and my palms were black from the lead.
After the ride, kids grabbed their lunches and ate on picnic tables. After lunch, they put on beach gear and head to the pond to swim or play on paddle boats. I had to leave for the day, and get ready for work, so I missed the water fights that I'm sure followed. Before I left though, I said good bye to Nichole and gave her a hug. I wish I could've stayed longer and built a stronger connection with these kids, many of them who have come to the camp for years. But it was an experience that I hope to have again in the future.
To learn more about donating or volunteering at O.A.T.S., visit http://www.oatshrh.org/