Walk among the horses milling around the dusty, well-trampled arena, and it won’t be long before she finds you.
Her gray muzzle, soft and inquiring, will tickle you as she draws near. And, if she really likes you, she’ll press her delicate head against you, and wrap her neck around you in a hug.
To be chosen by the gray mare, Lila B, is a moment that brings optimism, even joy, to those participating in a unique horse-therapy program in upstate New York.
At RoseWal Farm, where Lila B lives with her herd, people struggling with a range of psychological issues, from post-traumatic stress syndrome to job stress, find optimism when they pat the mare’s silky hair, or lead her past a series of orange cones and ground-poles in exercises designed to build trust, and inspire problem solving.
Most participants have never been around horses before. And, the experience of stepping into a ring with a thousand-pound animal can make a person brave, says Susan Aleksejczyk.
“Some people may fear the size of the horse, and others will say they just don’t want to participate,” she says.
But, there is always someone who does.
Wrapped in bandages, the race-weary gray mare arrived at the farm in June 2003.
Her short-lived career had ended suddenly, after she sustained a condylar fracture to her left, front Race name: Lila B
Sire: Two Punch
Dam: Princess Cavanagh
Foal date: Jan. 20, 2000leg. Following surgery at the New Jersey Equine Clinic, where Aleksejczyk worked in client services, and where she first met the horse with the kindest eye she’d ever seen—Lila B was brought to her farm to recuperate.
“I remember loading her up to take her home from the hospital, and we had a chain over her nose because she was up-in-the-air, like she was saying, ‘Oh boy! Where am I going?’ she says. “But then she settled in immediately. The personality change she experienced was dramatic.”
Once Lila B understood that she was on a nice, quiet farm, and not a fast-paced track, she settled into the groove, she adds.
“Before she came to me, she had never been exposed to a herd,” Aleksejczyk says. “Baby horses or green adults show their subservience by making a chewing motion with their mouths. This was exactly how she approached the herd; this is how she made her place known.”
And just as docile as she was with the herd, she was equally easy going around people, accepting of her new life.
When asked to keep to her stall for 30 days, only leaving for a few moments on a hand-walk, she obliged without fuss.
And once healed, she proved herself to be so cooperative around people that Aleksejczyk began using her to teach children to ride.
“She is so aware of a rider’s balance on her back, that I can see her rebalance herself to compensate for the rider,” she says. “Other times I’ve watched when a rider becomes really unbalanced, and she’ll just stop, as if to say, ‘Hey, what are you doing up there?’ ”
She was such a natural with people that when Aleksejczyk decided to become a certified specialist in the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association methods of horse therapy, Lila B was the first partner she turned to.
Even in the non-riding therapy program, the gentle creature has brought great comfort and untold joy to people struggling with difficult life changes, or psychological issues, by providing a shoulder to lean on.
Lila B helps teach participants how to approach a horse, put on a halter, and clip on a lead-rope. And, as they walk together, gaining confidence as they overcome unforeseen obstacles scattered across their path, people learn that indeed they can also overcome some of the obstacles in their own life.
And they take as long as they want, or ask anything of the sweet, gray mare. She’s content to be there, fully healed, enjoying life as a therapy horse.
“You can do anything with her: You can hug her, you can lean on her, you can crawl underneath her,” Aleksejczyk says. “She seems to possess that special quality that makes her an exceptional horse for somebody who may be going through something unsettling in their life.”
And if you don’t find her right away, she might just find you.