When Saib went to physical or occupational therapy, he’d usually cry or moan. But whenever the little boy with cerebral palsy got to work with Lily the therapy pony, he’d smile. He’d also do his best to say her name, said his mom, Mona Raza, even though he is nonverbal.
Lila Tjader strung together her first two words while riding Lily: “Go, Lily!” Lila, like Saib, has cerebral palsy and had significant speech delays, but Lily coaxed out communication.
After 12 years of working with kids with disabilities, Lily, now 20, has retired. She has moved on to the Stall of Fame for rest and a careful feeding regimen at Hold Your Horses, a nonprofit in the west metro area dedicated to equine-assisted therapy.
Lily’s arrestingly cute face — she’s part fjord horse, part Haflinger and a petite 12 hands tall — remains the face of the organization, and executive director Janet Weisberg counts her as a key co-worker. She tells of Lily’s intuitive grasp of her work: As she walks steadily around the arena, she may stop at just the right moment to elicit a word or two from her rider, or shift her weight as a child lies on her back, spurring strength and balance work. Many parents report that their child’s first word was “Lily.”
The organization’s horse handlers know that Lily is a pro, and that the idea of equine-assisted therapy “is not to steal kids’ thunder,” says Weisberg. When a child connects with Lily, moves with her and talks to her, “that’s where the therapy happens.”
That’s how it worked with Lila.
“Lila had to say it; they weren’t going to do it for her,” said her mom, Aimee Blanchette, a reporter for the Star Tribune. She knew Hold Your Horses would provide good physical therapy for Lila, but with Lily, her sessions turned into much more.
“Everything they do is hidden therapy,” said Blanchette. Lila and Lily seemed to understand each other from their first session, and Lila had no fear about climbing on and leaving her mom.
“The first time I saw her riding around,” said Blanchette, “it was really breathtaking.”
In fact, Lily, with her small body and big presence, does a lot of intangible work that humans find difficult to describe. She teaches defiant kids boundaries; she teaches nonverbal kids communication; she teaches out-of-control kids body awareness. And she’s taught many therapists and horse handlers, “I know best what this child needs,” said Weisberg.
Most therapy horses work for only about two years. That’s because they need to be physically fit to carry the unbalanced rider, and emotionally ready to take on the energetic work of the child. Horses react to kids’ stress and their “incongruity,” says Weisberg, describing it like this:
A child may deny his anxiety at meeting a huge creature by defiantly saying, “I’m not scared!” “Yes, you are,” senses the horse, and a good therapy horse will not freak out over this, but rather safely accompany the child through his fear.
While Lily is serious about working hard, she also seems to sense when a session needs to lighten up, Weisberg said. When a child is pitching beanbags into a bucket or knocking down bowling pins as part of therapy, the little dun mare has been known to nudge in the last beanbag or knock down the last pin. She also keeps new barn workers in line — “if you leave the gate open, I’ll just stroll on out.”
Now that Lily is retired, the organization is seeking to buy two more ponies to provide hippotherapy for children with physical and mental disabilities, including autism, brain injuries and neurological disorders (donate at holdyourhorses.org/donations).
Dr. Sarah Carlson, a veterinarian, has taken care of Lily for years, and can’t quite explain how the mare has overcome several health problems that can be deadly. Laminitis causes painful hoof damage, in Lily’s case a result of equine metabolic syndrome analogous to adult onset diabetes. If it’s not properly managed, laminitis can cripple horses and cause so much suffering that they must be euthanized. Hold Your Horses has Lily on a strict diet, and “she has a tough constitution,” said Carlson.
What’s next for the star of the barn? She has already mastered the timing of her every-two-hours feeding regimen and will let her human co-workers know with nickers and pointed stares when it’s time for her to eat. She still takes notice of new little people in the barn, especially the ones in sparkles and pink boots. And Weisberg said that, lately, Lily has been acting a little bored with her retirement. While she can’t carry even the tiniest rider anymore, it looks like Lily’s story has another chapter.