BOLIVIA — Sometimes we find what we weren’t looking for only to realize it is exactly what we needed.
This summer in Bolivia, a rural community outside of Holden Beach where I had spent the summer working as a traveling artist, I got just that.
It was the 17th of September. Summer was on the cusp of rounding into a pile of receipts and hard work that had me a bit forlorn for dreaming so big. I had left the security of corporate work to freelance. And if it hadn’t been for the resort island vacationers I would have resorted to yucca stem salads for survival. I had been in a real pinch all summer. But I had my foot in the door at Horseplay Farms to offer a fun activity, Paint Your Horse, and to donate partial proceeds to the non-profit, and took some framed art in case deep pocket stakeholders showed.
Horseplay Farms provides therapeutic riding to the disabled, to disadvantaged youth and adults, to those who have battled physical, emotional and mental health challenges, to Wounded Warriors, and our Veterans, like me, under a program titled, “Our Heroes.” Amos, a veteran, works full-time on the farm maintaining the structures and sixty acres with some occasional help. He was there, but had no desire to paint.
Ruth Jenkins, the owner of Horseplay Farms, several volunteers and mothers of the participating Pony Clubbers were present. And Jazmynn Brown, the program director, riding instructor and horse trainer; along with Allie Sabo, horse trainer and equine flexion therapist, were present. But they were busy assisting and guiding the Pony Clubbers with games, activities, and raffles. By lunch it was clear the only people with time or interested in painting were the Pony Clubbers.
The Pony Clubbers ranged in age from 7 to 13 and all of them wanted to paint a horse. My fee for Paint Your Horse begins at $35. If I could have had 10 paying painters that day I would have made back my fuel, eats, and made about $10 an hour for the day. But the Pony Clubbers looked just like me as a horse crazy kid as they awed through the binders filled with handmade templates of horses of all breeds in various poses.
I spoke with Ruth and told her that I would do one for free. The girls would have to win a contest of some sort and the winner would be free. Allie and Jazmynn lined up the corn-hole boards out in a clearing in front of a horse paddock and passed out the bright red and shiny yellow bags. We sized up teams and they began.
One yelled that it wasn’t fair, that she never wins. But she didn’t quit. One said that she was too short and we let her step closer. But she still missed, a lot. We all smiled. Another girl said that she wasn’t going to play anymore, that her team was already losing. She didn’t quit though. A very little sister kept trying, or cheating, depending on your outlook. One girl repeatedly said, “I can’t do this. I’m not good at this. I won’t win anyway.” But she did not quit. And there were several who squinted and squeezed down their lips and tossed the bag right in the hole.
So I let them all paint a horse.
This is where 11-year-old Maddie Waldron comes in. Maddie chose a running horse template. The reference picture for the running horse is clearly labeled, “A Challenge.” Some are labeled, “Easy.” I instruct fun painting classes of cats and dogs also and most of the time even adult students choose the easy templates. So it made me curious. And before I left that day I asked administration to interview a Pony Clubber of their choice at a later date and was told, “yes.”
It is curious that they chose Maddie. Or is the correct term predestined, or serendipity, or some other philosophical term that makes one more curious?
You see, as a child I was not the most or best at anything, ever, except horses. I sketched horses, embroidered them, pretended to ride them outdoors, sometimes indoors and dreamed of owning a ranch. In the earliest of years the only opportunity I had to ride was summer trips out West where my cousin had some half trained Appaloosas, a handful of friends who owned horses, and the one stable horse in my life, an aged pasture bound bucking bully, Blaze, who was not mine, but close enough. I was the only one allowed to ride Blaze.
The summation of my horse experiences led to increased confidence, or as parents had said, “horse-mindedness or horsiness,” which was often a prelude to a complaint concerning my boldness. As an adult I have owned several and have trail ridden the Uhwarrie Mountains and Southern Pines’ Walthour Moss Foundation, most of the time, alone, for over thirty years. I fear little and next to nothing when horseback. I wanted to know if Pony Clubbers could do or has done the same for these youngsters, but in a safer more controlled environment. Because we females need horsiness.
Maddie has been a Pony Clubber for two years now. In her interview she spoke with a soft voice, almost tender over the phone. But she spoke with dogmatic responses and was certain of her choices, no wishy-washy silliness. She is in the sixth grade and loves science most, she said, “because it ties into math,” and as she explained, helps her, “figure stuff out.”
I asked her if she makes good grades and she said that this year she has had to try harder, but gets A’s and B’s. “I need to step up in reading. I mostly read newspaper articles and magazines about horses.”
“I knew I wanted to ride the first time I came with my friend Victoria and I got to pet a horse. I told my mom that I wanted to ride,” she said. “And I just love it. It feels natural. And I love grooming. But I don’t like to scoop poop. I like feeding too. It is hard work.”
I asked her about the biggest challenge of Pony Club, and she told me, “Rascal will run from you when you try to catch him with a halter and lunge rope. You have to let him tire out until he gives in and he says, ‘OK, catch me.’” And my heart leapt as memories of Blaze and my childhood schemes to catch that rascal flashed.
I asked her about painting the running horse and she said, “I never knew I could do that.” I asked if trying new things helps her build confidence and she said, “It makes me feel good.”
“I volunteer here in the summer. It is my favorite place to be,” she added.
I asked Maddie if she had future plans yet or a dream and she told me that she would be the first person in her family to go to college. “I want to be a horse trainer like Jazmynn, or board horses and help people like Jazmynn does. And I also love painting. I am very creative. I did all the decorations in my room. But I love baking the best. It is my favorite.”
At 11 years old there is a lot of time.
I asked her one last question, if she ever got nervous on horseback, and she said, “I trust Jazmynn won’t let anything happen to me. I just learned to trot and post!” Maddie’s words ran together as she was so excited. “I pledged to Jazmynn to always wear a helmet and she taught me that all horse riders will fall sometime and you will just have to get back on.”
Contact Horseplay Farms on weekdays, between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m at 910-253-7722 or [email protected] or [email protected] Websites are www.horseplayfarms.net and www.ourheroesinc.org — both with Facebook links.
Stephanie M. Sellers is owner of A Traveling Sip & Sketch, Doggin Art Tees, LLC. She serves Coastal Carolinas, including Bald Head Island, the Sandhills and Piedmont. She can be reached at www.dogginarttees.weebly.com.