When I first got my job, I told people I worked with autistic horses, which was not true, but easier than "I work with horses and teach riding lessons at a farm residence for women with autism." By the time I get to the end of that, I see faces contort from interest to confusion to spaced out thinking about a favorite Seinfeld episode.
This is good, because if they manage to stay focused, the next question is usually, "What is autism exactly?" or "How do you feel about the exponential growth of the autistic diagnosis in the modern age?", the answer to either I do not know, nor do I particularly care.
What I care about is people, and how horses transform them. When I see a person, scared and intimidated, go up on a horse and break into a smile, her whole body taking on a shy confidence even she didn't know she had, everything else I've witnessed loses color.
At least twice a week I try to convince riders to climb 5.5 feet off the ground onto a horse called Sam I Am. If we get that far, I'm ready to call it a day and head back to a shower and the latest online episode of House.
Regardless of what autism is or isn’t, all of the women who live on the farm are different, puzzles that I’m trying to put together. Missy stands to my chin and slides on small steps like beginning on roller skates. “Hi Tash” she said the first time she met me. Up on Sam, she responds with an affirmative “Yep” to my inquiries: “Missy, are you comfortable?”...“Missy, are you having a good day?”... On about the fifteenth “Yep,” I get suspicious. “Missy, are you a space alien?” “Yep,” she says, not missing a beat.
But mostly what I "do" is drive 20 minutes to a barn in the valley, near enough to trail ride to the Rio Grande, work on my farmer's tan, play with horses, and restrain my wrath toward a rowdy pack of pygmy goats. I find it endlessly ironic that the work I enjoy the most is physical; working with my hands...or hand...or teeth or foot, whatever gets the job done.
All three horses at the farm have handicaps, causing me to wonder if I was hired to maintain consistency. All together, we have a bowed tendon, severe arthritis, and one blind eye. They would probably be diagnosed autistic as well, according to Temple Grandin's Animals in Translation, which explores the similarities in cerebral processing between animals and those with autism. Both are more aware of everything than the rest of us.
A few months back, I chipped a front tooth when I grabbed the metal end of a halter strap with my mouth. I looked in the mirror, horrified, imagining the slippery slope to losing dentures in the couch cushions. Turns out, it was fairly easy for the dentist to remedy. Life goes on. My lips are getting in shape now, sharing the workload with my teeth. And I smile thinking about what one might do with a degree in English literature.
“I like your hair, Tash,” Missy says from atop Sam. “Thank you, Missy,” I respond to the unexpected compliment. “You look like a grandma,” she explains.
Note: Names have been changed because I don't want the HIPPA Mafia coming after me.