I’m out on the trail with Jonnie Edwards and there isn’t any place I’d rather be. The Connecticut hillsides are soft with budding trees and the woods are inviting, sun dappled, with skunk cabbage bursting green and fresh in the low-marshy areas and newly minted ferns unfurling like question marks in the clean freshwater breeze off the river.
The horses are alert but quiet, and there is a sense of completeness—or better rightness—and I am aware that there are four beings here, traveling in harmony, in the now. Over a lifetime of riding, I’ve ridden with instructors, good, great, sometimes hair-raising, each one idiosyncratic in method and style of teaching.
Jonnie is different. She has an ability to communicate without judgement. It is always fun. “If it isn’t fun why are you doing it?” she asks and she punctuates the silence of an amble, on a loose rein, down a dirt road, with comments like, “Isn’t this heaven?” or “Isn’t this just the best place to be in the world right now?” in a husky voice full of joy and wonder. She has a girlish quality, forthright and open. When she laughs she really laughs.
Today, we trot the path that runs along the river and when the view is perfect, we pull up and let our reins slack. An egret, purest white, skims across the cove. Birds squabble in a tree overhead. “The thing about horses is…” Jonnie says after a while, and she takes a quick breath and a pause for emphasis. “They are so fantastic for life!” I smile and I feel it, this simple but profound truth. “I have to remember after all these years, that I am only assisting. The horses are our real teachers.”
Edwards, the woman on the big grey horse beside me, an event rider on the national level, coach, a Path Certified Advanced Level Therapeutic Riding Instructor for over thirty years, adopts an approach that suggests rather than insists, and with her guidance I am growing into a rider who is at last not afraid to make a mistake. Maybe it has something to do with her upbringing, fox hunting, the full-tilt chase through the cornfields before school, the mid-century manner of childrearing. “You know, Annie, I’m from Illinois and we just did things differently out there,” she said once, as we rode out of the stable yard in her sunny way.
I met Patty Ganey over a cup of tea in her airy, light-filled kitchen that looks out over a big open field where a bay thoroughbred, a Morgan mare, a Colorado quarter horse cross, and a shaggy Welsh pony graze in the early May sunshine. The first thing you notice about Patty is the light in her startling violet-colored eyes. She is tall, a redhead, and practically vibrates with a kinetic excitement—so much so that she seems to be standing up when she is sitting down. She has that quality that you’d follow into battle. A sense that she is on to something larger and life changing.
Riding came to Patty later in life. In her forties, after an early career as a management consultant, she and her husband moved their family to an old house with a barn in Hamburg Cove, where Patty says “The rule of an empty barn—fill with horses!” Like me, Patty came to Edwards for lessons, having competed in dressage, and eventing for ten years. Like Jonnie, she is a deeply committed long-time facilitator in a local therapeutic riding program, and a firm believer in the power of horses to heal human beings.
This is really a story about what happened when Patty met Jonnie—that special combustion of personality, a desire to help others, that resulted in a unique therapeutic program called The Next Step. I am here to find out more about what The Next Step is all about.
Patty, like Jonnie, is a Path Certified Therapeutic Riding Instructor and is also a Path Certified Equine Specialist in Mental Health and Learning. For the last three years they have worked together to develop a form of therapy that is both systematic, and hands-on. Patty likens the therapy to a toolbox you can rely on. Jonnie thinks it of as a fluid way of being, achieved over time.
“I come from the heart,” Jonnie says, “and Patty is the brains!”
Drawing from the basics of brain science, Patty believes humans can make systematic behavioral changes over time, creating new neural pathways to cope with and overcome the physical and emotional challenges that life throws our way — as Patty says — so “you can let it go and move the hell on!”
Horses are critical to this process and they are holding a clinic the following week for the board members of the Tim Buckley Project, a non-profit begun by Lisa Buckley, whose son died of an overdose two years ago. Inspired by her son’s close connection to the family dachshund, Lisa is interested in working with The Next Step to sponsor likely candidates who might benefit from Jonnie and Patty’s guidance.
The sky above the field at Patty Ganey’s farm is white, and the grass is flattened from the early morning rain. Patty’s tribe of horses is here and Jonnie has trailered two of hers over for the day’s outside, hands-on part of the program. Inside the pool house, the day’s participants—the members of the Tim Buckley Project Board and several helpers, gather in a close circle. The mood in the room is warm and welcoming, with bits of nervous laughter punctuating the happy chatter.
Patty calls us to order. A drawing of a horse appears on the screen, eyes wide, head up, nostrils flared, poised for flight. Patty commands the room. “What emotion is this horse feeling?” The group erupts into minor chaos, a flurry of answers. After several go-arounds, we all agree the emotion is fear.
Patty’s toolbox flies open and she explains how horses can help us identify what we are feeling in the moment. Horses never lie. They live in the now. Horses are prey animals that can detect heart rate, respiration and muscle tension from thirty feet away. Horses are like one big biofeedback machine. In the moment they let you know what they are feeling. Where does anxiety strike you? Your stomach, your chest, your throat? Now be aware of that feeling. Identify it. What is the reality? Make a change. Go back to grazing.
The power point lasts an hour. We pour outside, animated, talkative, we make our way over the lawn to the paddock across the drive.
The horses come to the fence line. They are alert, as always, and curious. The helpers gather lead lines and soon each horse is paired with a student and the hands-on part of the day begins. Jonnie stands in the middle of the muddy field, by her side a big bay thoroughbred stands at attention. She demonstrates the approach to walking off. “Together. Wait,” she says. “Breathe. Wait until the horse is with you. Don’t rush. It’s a partnership.”
I lean my elbows on the top rail of the fence and watch as a nice looking middle-aged man in a blue button-down shirt takes a lead line for the first time.
A beatific smile transforms his expression. Joy and wonder, I think. And respect. He’s out in the field with Jonnie Edwards and there’s no place he’d rather be.
To find out more about The Next Step program, find them on the web here.
Edwards and Ganey have worked to make the therapy sessions remarkably affordable.
If you’d like to find out more about the Tim Buckley Project, you can find them on the web here.