Horses have a way of connecting deeply with their riders. This month, we wrangled two inspiring stories of four-legged heroes.
A Calming Companion
“I gotta tell ya—the minute I got up on that therapy horse, I was hooked,” says Edina resident Chris Reichel. His cerebral palsy limits his mobility, making some hobbies difficult, so he’s been therapy-riding at the Minnetonka-based nonprofit We Can Ride since age 5. For the last seven years, it’s been with a special Appaloosa quarter horse paint named Buddy.
Reichel’s rides are adapted to his unique needs, with trained volunteer side-walkers and a leader walking ahead of the horse. Because of his anxiety, Reichel also needs a calm horse that will stay steady and focused. Buddy’s unique demeanor is a perfect fit for riders like Reichel. This winter Buddy retired from an extraordinarily long and successful therapy career with We Can Ride. Yep—Buddy even had a retirement party, presents and all.
“This kind of riding is hard on horses’ backs. [The riders] are people with cognitive, physical and emotional disabilities—inexperienced riders,” says Reichel’s mom, Linda Tedford, who has witnessed the effect Buddy has had on her son and the unique way Buddy took to his job. “Buddy is a solid horse who would not get spooked—he’s helped so many families and kids.” She says that because he was used to the craziness of the show circuit in his previous career, the busy therapy arena didn’t faze him.
“I get very happy when I talk about Buddy. I fell in love with him. He was so calm. He was so trustworthy,” Reichel says. “He has helped me accomplish goals I never thought I’d be able to do.”
Signe Peterson has been a therapeutic riding instructor for years, calling it a “passion job” or “hobby job.” She recalls Buddy’s amazing ability to sense the particular needs of a rider and step it up—or back it off—accordingly. “It’s so very special that he always knew what a rider needed. He can gauge where somebody’s at,” Peterson says. With strict standards for safety, instructors at We Can Ride know how to limit certain types of movement depending on riders’ abilities. Buddy is in incredible shape, especially for his age, and maintains a strong core and back that can support weaker clients well, she says, “but he craves a challenge—he loves to be asked to complete moves that require precision. This can be a high burnout job for people and for horses, but Buddy is an athlete and he loves his job.”
Therapy horses also undergo “acceptance testing” to make sure they won’t startle easily. “We joke that he’s ‘bombproof’—nothing would scare him,” says Laura Johnson, Buddy’s owner.
Johnson met Buddy when she started cleaning stalls and caring for horses in exchange for riding lessons at age 12. She had a chance to buy him for just $1, and they rode competitively together for years before she donated him to We Can Ride. Just as Buddy was all but a gift, Johnson had given him to the community for a time. But the typical life expectancy for a horse is 25 to 30 years, so at 29 (his birthday is this month), “he’s an old, old man,” jokes Johnson. She’s thrilled about the reputation Buddy has built in his “second career,” but excited to enjoy Buddy’s retirement years with him at her home in South Dakota.
“The goal is to spoil him rotten, but keep him moving, keep him flexible,” Johnson says. Among the horses in the barn where he’ll be boarded is another 29-year-old horse. Says Johnson, “They can be cranky old men together.”
The Horses of Huckleberry Farm
In 1996, Tom and Nancy Sawyer needed to move out of their Minnetonka home as new development arrived in the area. Around the same time, an older horse—a gelding named DD—came into their life and convinced them it was time to embrace a rural Orono lifestyle.
“DD stirred up all these memories and dreams I had put aside,” says Nancy Sawyer. “We did a complete turnaround, and he captured our hearts and was truly an ambassador for horses.” They set their sights on the country and imagined what the next phase of their life would look like.
“My husband’s name is Tom Sawyer. What do you do with that? You name a farm after it!” Sawyer says with a laugh. “It’s a peaceful area with rolling hills. You can’t be tense in this area—not if you’re at all aware.”
DD was the first of many animals to take up residence at the Sawyers’ Huckleberry Farm, some through unlikely circumstances or with tough pasts, and they’ve all made an impact. In 2003, a horse called the Dragon Master—whose nickname is Hotspot—joined the group because of a note sent by a complete stranger through an online message board about Arabian horses.
“Because of what I had commented on and things she had learned about me, she said, ‘This horse belongs to you,’ ” Sawyer says. Hotspot had a few quirks. He didn’t take a bit and didn’t like anyone touching his ears, but with lots of practice and relationship-building, the two became quite the team and, after trying several styles, settled on dressage as a favorite kind of riding.
Dressage is a kind of crisp, competitive riding with intricate steps timed to music. Like a horse-and-rider ballet or ballroom dance, “it’s a true partnership with a horse—there’s balance and communication. You have to convince them your goal is common,” Sawyer says. Last year, Sawyer and Hotspot competed in the Dressage Foundation’s Century Club ride, where each horse and rider must have a combined age over 100. Sawyer (71 at the time) and Hotspot (then 29) earned an impressive score of 80.5 percent.
“He’s such a fabulous gentleman,” says Sawyer, who describes how Hotspot rose was on his best behavior for the crowd and judges. “He beamed. He just knew.”
The thrill of competition, and the discipline and physical stamina required for the sport, have kept Sawyer and her horses young. She doesn’t have an indoor arena, so she trailers horses to shared training arenas four days per week, in addition to running and working out herself, to keep in shape. As she looks toward Hotspot’s retirement from competitive riding this year, she sees it much like her own.
“I think, ‘What would I do if I retired?’ The worst thing you can do is sit,” says Sawyer. “I know I have to make his lifestyle such that he gets out and about.” Hotspot and his pal Frisbee, who has a tough story of his own, will remain active as long as possible.
Embracing life and keeping their commitment to animals—at every stage, in every circumstance—is part of the fabric of Huckleberry Farm. Just as the Sawyers share their animals with the frequent visitors who come looking for tranquility and fresh air, they’ve learned to go with their gut and keep their door (er—gate?) open when a new creature needs a home.
“You can’t plan this stuff—it just kind of happens here,” Sawyer says. While she’s sure there are other horses in her future, Sawyer’s just not sure which ones yet. For now, she’s looking forward to spoiling Hotspot in his retirement and training for her next Century Ride (this time with Frisbee) in a few years.