W.When I meet someone who grew up disabled in Australia, I just want to know one thing about them. I go through the small talk movements, feigning interest in their day, respectfully waiting a long time before derailing the conversation with the question I was dying to ask.
“Hey, did you have to ride too?”
It is one of life’s great tragedies that “hippotherapy” has nothing to do with hippos. Had I had hippopotamus riding lessons at the age of eight, I would probably have grown into a very different man. More confident. More confident. Khaki would probably play a bigger role in my wardrobe.
The boring reality is that hippos are related to horses (hippopotamus is derived from the ancient Greek word for “hippopotamus”), and they are horses to do with hippotherapy.
When it comes to treatment options for a boy with a congenital muscle disorder, the mind doesn’t instinctively jump to horses. However, therapeutic riding or hippotherapy has been strongly recognized by my neurologist, my physiotherapist, and my occupational therapist.
“I went to the center once a week and carried RM Williams on my tiny, flat feet.” Photo: Jeremy Woodhouse / Getty Images
So popular is it that there are RDA (Riding for the Disabled Association) centers in every state and territory of Australia, which are moderately affordable through government subsidies for non-aristocratic disabled people. Because of the ubiquity and these subsidies, I have found that Australian adults with a disability are almost as likely to ride as Australian adults who were child actors at The Saddle Club. That is, very likely.
My local center in Perth was called RDA Capricorn. The stables and paddock were next to Perry Lakes Stadium, the multi-purpose sports complex built for the 1962 Commonwealth Games. It was a somewhat ironic neighbor. At Perry Lakes, my capable classmates played basketball, and there were carnivals between schools that I couldn’t attend. I doubt many people knew that there was a bunch of young cripples on horses hobbling away, hidden among eucalyptus trees and on a discreet dirt road.
What I liked best was the sheer novelty. I was finally in control of a capable body
I went to the center once a week and carried RM Williams on my tiny, flat feet. I went in where they kept the helmets and tried to find one that would fit well. Then I went back through, my boots digging into wood mulch where a series of ramps led to platforms of varying heights.
The platform you used depended on which horse you were riding that day. Instead of trying to get on a horse with a force they didn’t have, each child walked or rolled their wheelchair onto a platform roughly the size of the horse they were assigned to. They would get in the saddle with the help of a volunteer who would almost always be a horse-obsessed teenage girl, whose time and generosity were rewarded with the opportunity to ride for free after all of the disabled children went home.
In my first year I always drove Albert. He was an old pony, relatively low to the ground, white with flecked gray spots. Later, when I gained confidence and skill, I rode Apollo – a real horse, much larger and more muscular, in a chestnut coat.
Alistair Baldwin. Photo: Black Inc Books
In each session we drove around the rectangular paddock a few times, then crossed from corner to corner, snaking in and out of traffic cones, and jumping over small obstacles. There was something exciting about turning the horse with the slightest pull of the reins, jumping, and shifting into a quick trot. What I liked best was the sheer novelty. I was finally in control of a capable body.
However, the judges aren’t sure how much riding can really help disabled people.
One of the first people to notice the health benefits of riding was Hippocrates (also unrelated to hippos) around 400 BC. BC, who called it a “natural exercise” that benefited the body, mind and spirit. In a separate scroll, however, Hippocrates wrote that for those with a passion for riding, “the constant jerking of their horses makes them unsuitable for traffic”. As someone who has once landed wrong at the trot, I can say (in a slightly high voice) that this assessment has a certain basis in reality. If I were a conspiracy theorist I’d say the government pays for it – it’s all part of a long game to keep us invalids from infecting the gene pool with our sub-par DNA.
A cursory Google search revealed that Lis Hartel, a Danish dressage champion who contracted polio at the age of 23 in 1944, was another major supporter of equine therapy. She was paralyzed below the knees and continued her dressage against medical advice and became the first woman to win a silver medal in an Olympics for men and women. She attributed the improvement in her polio symptoms to riding and, after retiring from sport, advocated hippotherapy for disabled people.
The official RDA website states that hippotherapy contributes to the development of “posture control, balance reactions, balance, coordination and spatial orientation”. A 2015 medical article stated that it was used to treat “Autism, Cerebral Palsy, Arthritis, Multiple Sclerosis, Head Injury, Stroke, Spinal Cord Injury, Behavioral Disorders, and Psychiatric Disorders” despite “showing the effectiveness of hippotherapy in many of these indications is unclear “.
“I already feel a strange affinity for horses.” Photo: Olivia Bell Photography / Getty Images
What do I think? The truth is I don’t know if it helped me. In theory, it probably improved my core strength, just as sitting on a yoga ball improved core strength – the switching stability that awakens deep, moth-eaten muscles in my stomach. But I certainly didn’t notice that at the time. It is difficult to judge progress or decline within a disability, especially as a child. It is next to impossible to compare yourself to what you were six months ago because all you want to do is compare yourself to your friends and your thugs – and that’s all they want to do right again.
My mom was a fan of the whole thing because I finally found a physical activity that I was okay with. My older brother was a sporty boy who played footy and basketball. He regularly received ribbons, trophies and the most valuable players’ certificates and put them on a shelf above his bed. As part of her tireless efforts to make sure I never felt like I was living a watered-down version of my childhood, Mom went to a shop to order horse-shaped trophies for me (labeled as an “accomplishment” of a nondescript variety), and she would these are awarded every six months.
At school, all of my friends were able … I tried so hard to hide the gap between our skills
When I decided to quit riding for good, I thought Mom was more upset than I was. But she respected my autonomy and agreed that the event that drove the final nail in the coffin of my riding career – an accident that was no one to blame but I was too scared to continue riding – was a good reason to call it quitt.
Even now I feel a strange affinity for horses; partly because of the afternoons I spent with them as a child, partly because the value of a horse to society as it is to humans is inextricably linked to its ability. It doesn’t take much more than a vague understanding of history and a little imagination to see that, if they could, capable people would melt the lame into glue.
Additionally, I’m just glad I was lucky enough to grow up with anything, surrounded by other disabled children.
At school, all of my friends were capable (as were my enemies). I’ve tried so hard to hide the gap between our capabilities. While riding, I never had to dress up as weirdly, the way my shoulders were rounded, my strange walk, the strange way my hands grabbed things. It is exhausting to fight as you naturally exist. The spaces and moments when you can relax like your body really is are sacred. And that’s what gave me riding.
That’s why I like to ask other disabled people if they also ride. In a world where you can feel incredibly different for everyone around you, it’s nice to find people with whom you share a perspective, identity, diagnosis, or experience.
• This is an edited excerpt from Growing Up Disabled in Australia, edited by Carly Findlay and published by Black Inc Books