At Brigitta Bogen’s Texas farm, looks and disabilities don’t matter so much.
Never was that single fact as clear as on a February day this year when a funny looking ex-racehorse came to live on her farm.
Hammersmith was just settling into his large stall with Dutch doors, when a group of excited youngsters burst excitedly into the barn, wanting to get a look at the new guy.
From over the top of his stall door, he peered at them face on, revealing, as if he’d been the poor loser in a fight, a one-inch hole beneath his right eye, and a crooked, sunken nose.
But the kids, the whole bunch of them, blithely looked upon him, noticing nothing. They simply greeted him kindly and got on with their daily activities at the barn.
“They were just excited to see him,” Bogen says. “I don’t know if their lack of reaction is due to the fact that I have so many kids here with disabilities, so they’re just used to differences, but, when they met Hammersmith, they did not see a horse with a crooked nose and a hole by his eye.”
They saw a future friend, one who was a little bit different, and a lot like them. Right away, Hammersmith was given a welcoming pat, and welcomed into to their world.
On this arid property, everyone is on equal footing.
Race name: Hammersmith
Barn name: Smitty
Dam: Bella Bellucci
Foal date: March 9, 2008For, under the roof of this particular barn in Claude, Texas, children with disabilities and American veterans coping with post war trauma, work alongside able-bodied equestrians; each is engaged in improving their relationships with horses and their own skills as riders, and ultimately, their self-esteem.
“I have so many kids with disabilities here that nobody says anything about somebody’s disability, and they don’t say anything about Hammersmith’s looks,” Bogen says.
A certified instructor in therapy riding, Bogen operates two horse programs designed to help people overcome personal obstacles. In her therapy-riding program, her goal is to help students with physical or mental limitations learn to become capable riders.
“If we have a student with one arm, for example, we’ll construct different reins for that child so that he or she can ultimately learn to ride independently,” she explains. “We work with each child individually, to help them overcome their disabilities” enough to ride their best.
The same can-do attitude guides Bogen’s approach to helping soldiers overcome post-traumatic stress disorder through her program, Horses for Heroes.
Soldiers learn to confront their anger, grief and unresolved feelings by working with these large, gentle animals. Simple acts, like walking into a field and having a horse “choose” a particular soldier to work with, can be the first step in creating a bond and building a foundation that leads to insights about their own psyches, she says.
The premise behind the Horses for Heroes program is that soldiers learn to reflect on different aspects of their own personalities. “Working with horses can help them see how their own attitudes may cause a horse to back off, or come toward them,” she explains.
And now Hammersmith is waiting for his chance to show a soldier or a child how to look past his “goofy” exterior to the gentle soul beneath.
As Bogen prepares him for a future as a therapy horse, he is being taught to respond calmly to the sight of spooky objects, and to stay composed when in the company of excitable children.
So far, a flurry of birthday party balloons for rambunctious children only aroused a curious look from him. And the sudden sounds of delighted or agitated children have caused him no worry.
“The day we had a birthday party for five-year-olds, it started to rain outside, so we had to hold it in the barn, near his stall,” Bogen says. “They held stick-horse races and made quite a commotion, but it didn’t faze him at all.
“He just fits right in!”
Hammersmith, an off-track Thoroughbred, came to Bogen in late February this year, after a short career at upper level tracks.
After eight starts he earned $26,365 in winnings before sustaining a small fracture in his pastern bone of his right, hind fetlock in November 2011.
He retired to New Vocations and made a full recovery, however, the inch-long hole under his right eye, and a sunken depression his cheek, was part of the package, as well.
The hole needs to remain open so his sinuses can drain, preventing a septic buildup should infection occur, according to a press release from New Vocations.
Adoption specialists at the re-homing organization knew they would need to find a very special fit for Hammersmith. Not everyone would want a horse with a hole. And, Bogen was the perfect match!
She already had great results with another ex-racehorse she adopted from New Vocations, so when they asked her if she could use Hammersmith for her program, replied quickly, “Absolutely.”
The sinus hole is no trouble at all. She swabs it every morning, but, in the dry climate, it emits very little discharge. And she puts a fly mask on his face to protect it when he goes outside to play.
Like any child at the farm, he has found acceptance.
“He has a crooked nose, and a big character,” Bogen says. “He’s a bit of a goofball, but he has found his place. With some horses, it takes a while before they feel a connection to people. Hammersmith was different. He connected right away.”
He’s a different kind of horse all right.
One who makes a big difference to the people on Bogen’s farm who care little about looks and disabilities.