Risk and reward

Like any parent, I try to do what’s best for my kids and that means taking a chance on horses.

Even the most patient and willing pony has his breaking point, which is why Rocky is cantering unchecked along the rail with my youngest child clinging to his neck.

At just 5 years of age, Brynn has developed a riding technique that consists mainly of doing whatever it takes to stay on. Her legs barely pass the saddle flaps and she sometimes has trouble handling the reins, but she is undaunted. Plodding around the ring isn’t sufficient; she wants to canter. And on this particular day, she’s been nagging Rocky by flapping her arms and kicking him incessantly with her heels. He trots placidly for a while before responding to the goading with a canter. Then he starts lengthening his stride.

From across the ring, I see the problem: Brynn wants to pull back on the reins, but she’s reluctant to let go of the mane. Eventually, she lifts one hand, but the reins are too long to slow the pony.

I run across the ring to intersect Rocky’s path. He spies me and slows down.

“I was OK with going that fast,” Brynn says breathlessly when she finally stops.

“Well, I want that to be your choice, not the pony’s,” I reply.

Most parents worry about their kids falling off and getting hurt. Or getting kicked in the barn, or stepped on while grooming a horse.

Rarely do I think about the risk of horse-related mishaps. But I do worry about barn dirt and dust. I fret about the particles stirred up in the air and the bacteria they might contain—and what they could do to Brynn.

My daughter has cystic fibrosis (CF), a genetic, chronic disease that causes the body to produce thick mucus, which leads to digestive complications and compromised lung function. Like others with CF, Brynn receives daily medication and airway clearance therapy. Twice a day, she is tethered to a vest and a machine that “thumps” her chest to loosen the mucus in her airways. We also visit the hospital frequently to undergo tests and discuss ways to optimize her lung health.

On one of our many hospital visits, I mentioned that Brynn rides horses, and the physical therapist’s face lit up. She explained that riding and other “bouncy” activities can help with airway clearance.

It was nice to hear that something we were already doing might help. Some people with CF start riding because of the possible benefits. But Brynn happened to be born into a horsey family. Riding has always been an option.

The doctors, however, are more guarded about Brynn’s equestrian pursuits. They talk about the risks of exposure to dust and particle matter, and the potential introduction of new infectious agents into her lungs. What they do not say, because of course I already know, is that in someone with CF, lung infections can be devastating.

Like other CF parents, I constantly ponder germ risk. I think twice about taking Brynn on an airplane, or exposing her to other crowded, confined spaces. It’s easy to become preoccupied with unknown, invisible risks.

But my husband and I allow Brynn to participate in activities like any other kid. And riding is a no-brainer. We live in a rural area and we have horses. They’re a part of our lives.

More important, Brynn is horse crazy. She loves puttering around the barn and ducking under the stall guards to pick hooves or dole out hay. She loves riding and recently began fox hunting with me.

At times, Brynn is a stubborn, difficult kid, and getting her to do her daily CF therapy is an ongoing challenge. But I see that same determination when she tries to halter her pony or canter unassisted in the ring. And I wouldn’t want to temper that passion or restrict her opportunities to ride or handle horses. The reward is too great.

This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #460, January 2016.




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