Fifteen Hands To Help One Sense

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Equine therapy gives one boy another chance at independence.

Myat’s scream filled the stable.

People turned to watch the fidgeting child, spirals of steaming breath the only thing coming from their mouths. It’s happened before. Myat’s parents, Kara and Scott Haggart,  pulled him aside to calm him down.

It had been one of those mornings, Kara said. It started at home, when Myat was being “unusually bratty.” He whined as he zipped up his riding boot, fumbling for the other one, frustration building. The boots were one battle, the winter coat another.

“I don’t want to go to the horses,” Myat pleaded over and over again. Scott shrugged it off, coaxing him into his winter coat and ushering him towards the door where his thin white cane waited in an umbrella stand.

The three-block walk to the stable was a lost cause. A therapist joined the Haggarts to help Myat guide himself with the cane. She encouraged him to find his way along a wall by himself. But the wind and cold deepened Myat’s frustration. It took 10 minutes to walk one block. The riding lesson would start in four minutes. Kara finally decided to grab Myat by the arm. Scott and the therapist shuffled behind them, heads down in the biting wind.

The shelter of the stable didn’t pacify Myat. He stomped the ground, wriggled from Kara’s grasp and evaded putting on his helmet. That’s when Myat first screamed. Then he screamed again. Patches the horse waited impatiently by the mounting block. He flicked his head several times, restless.

Kara and Scott looked to the therapist, who motioned for them to pull Myat away from the mounting block. Kara held him close while Scott blotted his runny nose.

“Patches is looking forward to the ride, Myat,” said one of the stable volunteers.

“Let’s keep Patches warm,” said another. “He doesn’t want to just stand around. Can you help keep him warm?”

Finally, Myat calmed down enough to try getting on the horse. The first try was unsuccessful. The riding instructor backed Myat away from the mount. The second try was no better. They backed away once more. On the third try, Myat pulled himself up halfway before he changed his mind, wriggling and squirming in the instructor’s arms. Scott and the volunteers reached up to steady him as he lurched away from the horse.

The last attempt came with ultimatum. “This will be the last try, Myat,” said Scott, evenly. “Last time or we’re not trying anymore.”

—–

Two weeks earlier, eight-year-old Myat Haggart galloped down 10th Avenue, much like the horse he had ridden during his lesson that morning. You wouldn’t know it from a child who looked so exuberant, his riding boot-clad feet hitting the pavement – clip clop, clip clop – that he almost didn’t make it onto the horse.

The instructor decided to let Myat choose the horse he wanted to ride after he had shied away from a tawny, full-grown mare named Candy. There were two other horses, both of which already had children on their backs. But Myat could not see the horses or the children. The choice was an illusion with a purpose.

“It empowers him when he’s given a choice,” said Kara.

Myat stood near a horse and pointed. The horse was Candy but Myat could not know that. Still, he had made his “choice” and finally mounted Candy with the help of the instructor and volunteers. This took 10 minutes. And for the remainder of the 45-minute lesson as he sat upon Candy, sitting with such confidence that he appeared to gain an inch in height. Myat’s early morning frown disappeared into a toothy smile.

Clip clop, clip clop, went Myat down 10th Avenue. His cane struck a construction cone, the dull thud reverberating over the noise of Sunday morning street traffic. Myat paused and then walked on.

“You don’t ever, ever think you’re child is going to be blind,” said Kara.

For weeks, the Haggarts had been bringing Myat to Equestria, a stable on 48th Street west of 10th Avenue, in the hope that riding a horse might build his confidence and independence, as well as to give him an experience he could touch and feel, even if he could not see it.

He was not born blind. He was 10 months old when his parents began to notice a film clouding his eyes. Thirty surgeries followed, each giving the Haggarts hope that he might regain his vision. But each time the blindness returned, and doctors could offer no explanation. The surgeries ended when Myat was six – It was “bye bye medical land,” said Scott.

When he was eight Myat was diagnosed with a gradual hearing loss.

“We had a sick child who lived in a hospital for two years,” Kara said. “We’ve lived a thousand years.”

The riding program, as Scott puts it, had been a case of high order and high chaos. Every week, Myat protested the horses. But every week, Myat got on. And every week, Myat left a happy kid, horse-galloping down the sidewalk.

The stable is only three blocks away from their new apartment. If it weren’t for the distinct aroma of horse hair and damp straw, or the trails of sawdust sneaking out onto the sidewalk, a passerby would be none the wiser about the stable’s existence.

But Myat’s senses were different. He could not see the sawdust bags or the remnants of hay bales, but he knew his way. His darting hands discerned the smooth feel of his building’s wall from the jagged brick of the building next door. He knew when he was passing the Hess station at West 45th Street when he stopped to sniff the air that – to the average olfactory system – is only slightly punctuated with gasoline. He could tell where the crosswalks were when he inched his feet along the sidewalk, reaching for the dip in the road. He slowed his already painstaking pace when he passed the carwash at 47th for fear of falling on the slippery pavement.

His green eyes are open and beautiful, hooded by long lashes. His hair is brown and wavy. He smiles a lot but sometimes he cries when he cannot discern the direction of Scott’s voice or Kara’s jingling keys. But, like the horses, he walked on every Sunday morning.

—-

Weekends are wind down time for the Haggarts. They sat in their living room on West 45th Street, while Myat played quietly in a corner with his Legos, reaching and feeling around the bin for the piece to top his skyscraper.

Kara and Scott want so much for their child. Myat is repeating first grade at the School for the Blind in the Bronx. They are thrilled that he is getting another chance at school after missing significant developmental milestones. His language and social skills lag behind. He is prone to tantrums. Kara drives him an hour each way to school since he was thrown off the bus for his behavior.

The Haggarts had heard of equine therapy, but did not want Myat to have to wait two years to join a program in Prospect Park. Then they found the stable nearby, and enrolled Myat in a ten-week class. It is too soon, they say, to notice any substantial change in their child.

It is hard for the Haggarts to plan. “Everyday I feel like I’m in the thick of it,” Scott says. “There’s very little room for too much structure, for too much scripting and narrative. Very little room to really contemplate, or to philosophize and reflect.”

Scott is from Scotland and though he spent most of his life around horses he never rode. As he spoke about fields of horses and cattle, Myat perked up, and joined the conversation.
“I don’t want to ride a horse,” he said. “I want to ride a cow!”

Kara shook her head and laughed softly. She called Myat over and pulled out a soft-bristled hand brush. Instinctively, Myat laid across her lap, and she began to brush him. The Haggarts brushed him for the sensory experience. They brushed him to sooth him, almost every day. They brushed him because he liked it. Myat’s eyelids fluttered and closed.

“I wish I could ride on a horse, bud,” Kara said to her suddenly tranquil boy. She raised her eyes. “I just want Myat and the horse to have a beautiful moment.”

Myat rode Diggity, a waist-high Shetland, a few times. When he was astride Diggity, Myat lit up. His curious hands slid up and down Diggity’s soft neck, tendrils of his mane slipping through Myat’s searching fingers. Myat never talked much about riding, but as he settled into the rocking movement of Diggity’s short strides, his hands quieted and his tense upper body relaxed in the saddle.

—-

Kara is a freelancer, transcribing and writing audio description for the blind. Scott often works 70 hours a week in high performance sound equipment management and sales. Weekends are often the only time he spends with Myat, who is an only child. The Haggarts do not plan on having more children.

Kara and Scott met and married within a year. Kara spent $10 on her wedding dress. Before Myat started losing his sight, Kara and Scott were the kind of parents who gave him the middle name “Moondog” after a blind American composer, because of Kara’s craving for his music during her pregnancy. For the first 10 months of his life, Myat  — named for a mountain in Scotland – was developing normally.

“There’s no respite,” said Scott, a hint of weariness in his voice. “But there’s been no greater project then dealing with the trials and tribulations of this little guy. He is so sweet and charming, and so much fun.”

—-

Scott delivered the ultimatum once more, “Last time or we’re not trying anymore,” as Kara’s shoulders tensed upwards to her ears. Her eyes, filled with a frustrated pain, searched Scott’s darkening expression. Scott held his squirming son, exasperation plain on his face. The therapist tried to get everyone to calm down.

Myat and Scott approached the horse. Myat hesitated, sensing Patches’ restlessness. He ran his hand along the horse’s mane, orienting himself. He put his foot in the stirrup, cried out once more, “NO.”

Scott and the riding instructor gave him a gentle shove. Myat swung his leg across Patches’ back.

The stable erupted in cheers. Myat’s face melted into a wide smile. Scott looked back at Kara. She let out an audible sigh. Scott’s shoulders sagged in relaxation.

Myat, astride Patches, rode on. He yelled “Woah!” Patches, too, calmed down as the volunteer led him and Myat around the stable, clouds of sawdust kicking up under Patches’ dragging hooves.

The instructor handed out ribbons at the end of the “show.” Myat grinned for the parents’ cameras, flashes bursting around the dimly lit stable. The instructor high-fived him and ushered him back towards Kara and Scott, who enveloped him with praise and kisses.

“He is born to us, that’s the deal,” said Kara. “And it’s frustrating, and a long haul, and it’s a huge, heavy deal, but you know what? We can do it. We will honor him. He’s beautiful, and lovely, and crazy, and great, and we are so in love with him.”

They left the stable, Myat clutching his cane. Just slightly over the din of the traffic on 10th Avenue, you could here the faint clip-clop, clip-clop as the family went home.

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2 Responses to “Fifteen Hands To Help One Sense”

  1. Indrani
    January 19, 2014 at 8:20 PM #

    Such a lovely, lovely story, Marika.

  2. Susan Shouse
    January 20, 2014 at 1:12 AM #

    Beautiful story!! Myat is a wonderful child. He is very lucky to have his parents…they are both very special. I am proud to call Kara my niece!

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