On Monday, David O'Connor began what he hopes will be a long-lasting relationship.
He rose slowly from his wheelchair with a bit of help and inched forward with crutches for his first meeting with Hannah Mae, a 20-year-old, 2,000-pound draft horse. He reached out tentatively to scratch her neck.
The 47-year-old Bend resident broke a dozen bones and sustained a traumatic brain injury in a car crash just over four months ago. He is hoping Hannah Mae can help him heal.
Hannah Mae recently joined Healing Reins Therapeutic Riding Center, a nonprofit based just east of Bend. She is undergoing training to become the first horse at the center in nearly two years that is able to handle larger, adult riders.
While the center is perhaps better known for working with children, it also helps adults. Executive Director Dita Keith said the addition of Hannah Mae will allow Healing Reins to serve more adults, particularly those who weigh more than 180 pounds.
Right now, the waiting list of potential riders for Hannah Mae is seven names deep.
O'Connor is one of the them.
Life changed dramatically for O'Connor in June when he was driving on U.S. Highway 20 toward Sisters. Another driver hit him head on.
He was flown by helicopter to St. Charles Bend and immediately went into surgery there. He spent 18 days in the hospital and later went to inpatient rehabilitation.
O'Connor is now in outpatient therapy. He still experiences pain and is undergoing multiple therapies to improve.
As his strength and stamina has increased, he turned to Healing Reins about three weeks ago to see if using horses to combine physical and occupational therapies might add to his recovery.
Part of his evaluation was to brush a horse down. At the end, he marveled that he didn't even realize that time had lapsed.
“It was just so neat to forget about the pain, forget about the accident and just focus on the horse,” he said.
The right horse
Finding the right horse to fulfill such a role hasn't been easy.
The horses at Healing Reins aren't rescues. The nonprofit, which presently has a herd of 12, engages in searches throughout the Pacific Northwest to find its horses.
A therapy horse must be well-trained and able to handle hard work, said Polly Cohen, Healing Reins' program director. It must also have an even gait and be extremely docile.
The nonprofit focused its search on draft horses, large horses that include breeds such as Clydesdales and Belgians.
A promising equine candidate for Healing Reins then goes through a veterinary check. Cohen said arthritis can be an issue with draft horses, which have traditionally been used as work horses on farms and logging operations.
If deemed fit, the horse then comes to Healing Reins for a 30-day trial period. There, trainers try some of the stimuli that the horse would endure in therapy settings: loud noises, basketballs being thrown in their space, a strange-looking crane that allows wheelchair-bound riders to mount.
A whole host of reactions, from speeding up to balking at the stimulus, can be enough to reject a horse. A steed must be mellow enough to ensure the safety of a rider with disabilities on its back.
During the search, Cohen said, several horses made it to the 30-day trial. But for various reasons, they weren't the right fit.
Cohen said Hannah Mae, who was found at a farm near Portland, stood out from the start.
“The biggest thing that stood out for me,” Cohen said, “is she's such a big horse, but the first time you approach her she lowers her head. She's very sweet and kind and approachable.”
“She's very careful with where she places her hooves,” Cohen added. “Some big horses are clumsy, kind of big galoots. And she's very aware of her body.”
Hannah Mae is a Percheron, a draft horse known for its stoic nature and strong work ethic. Her main job had been to breed — called a brood mare — so she was in good physical shape, as she hadn't been ridden as hard as many other older horses.
Cohen recalled testing Hannah Mae's patience by throwing rings used as swimming pool toys by her head.
“She could care less,” Cohen said. “I thought, 'Aha. This could be our horse.' ”
Hope in Hannah Mae
Cohen believes Hannah Mae will be ready to ride by early November.
She is poised to become an important addition at Healing Reins. She is large enough to carry riders weighing up to almost 250 pounds. And at age 20, she has plenty of years left — horses can live into their 30s.
She trained Monday in the arena on the Healing Reins ranch. Jed Cohen, who does not have disabilities but does ride, portrayed a person in a wheelchair. He was hoisted onto Hannah Mae's back with specialized equipment.
Once on the horse, Cohen took a turn around the arena with Polly Cohen, his wife, walking along one side and Healing Reins instructor Christie Rankin on the other. They each placed a hand on one of his legs, as they would to help stabilize a person with disabilities.
The children Healing Reins works with have a range of issues, from emotional problems to genetic disabilities to attention deficit disorder. Cohen said some children will ride Hannah Mae, particularly for some of the exercises that are almost like horse gymnastics.
For adults, the problems tend toward strokes, traumatic brain injuries, dementia and osteoporosis.
“We have catered to and are able to cater to a variety of people with our adaptive equipment,” Cohen said.
One such adult is Geoff Babb, a Bend resident debilitated by a stroke in 2005. He remains in a wheelchair.
Babb started riding at Healing Reins about two years after his stroke, when the nonprofit still had a sizeable horse available for adults.
“It's been too long since I've been on a horse,” he said Monday.
Not only does Babb like the feeling of freedom from atop a horse, he said it also stretches out his leg muscles. Though he is in a wheelchair, he has full feeling in his legs.
Riding also makes him think about using muscles to guide the horse and helps him develop better balance.
He scratched Hannah Mae's nose Monday, eager to get back in the saddle.
“They tell me Hannah Mae is a great girl,” he said, “so we'll see.”
O'Connor said just being in the Healing Reins atmosphere — surrounded by people who keep striving to do as much as they can, despite disabilities — has already been positive for him. He looks forward to both the physical and mental aspects of therapy with horses.
“I'm definitely looking for positive, supportive environments, and I felt that at Healing Reins,” he said.
O'Connor has ridden horses before. But since the accident, he doesn't remember it.
“Things are coming back still,” he said. “I hope it will trigger memories.”
For more information
To learn more about Healing Reins, go to www.healingreins.org or call 541-382-9410.