Back on Track ‘Horse Therapy’ Essay Contest: And the Winner Is…

… Jessica and Gus! Read the winning essay here.

jessica and gus

Jessica and Gus

A few weeks ago, we sent out a call for stories from readers about how horses have helped them through tough times. You responded with essay after heartfelt essay about the horses that have carried you through so much.

The essays you will be reading over the coming weeks are tributes to the horses that have touched your lives: they include stories of horses helping you through heartbreak, sickness, loss, abuse and utter brokenness. They will make you smile, and they may make you weep. Every last one of the horses you described were beyond deserving. To determine the recipient of the new Back on Track Therapeutic Quick Wraps, we drew one essay at random, the winner being Jessica Zarudzki and her horse Gus. The rest of the essays will be shared here on Horse Nation to recognize the horses that have helped their owners through so much.

Eighteen years ago I was diagnosed with Adolescent Idiopathic Scoliosis, the sideways curvature of your spine. I just remember my father screaming for my mother and then everyone crying, so I also cried. I was five and didn’t understand anything they were talking about. My mother had Scoliosis and underwent a spinal fusion almost forty years ago and she knew I was going to have to go through the same things she did. So at five I started to go to numerous orthopedic doctors and was fitted for numerous braces, and had to take numerous x-rays to watch my curves. It felt as if almost every single week I was seeing a doctor to help with my spinal condition. That was also when my parents decided to put me in to horseback riding lessons to help with my posture. I could also take my back brace off, so I began to ride and loved it!

Five years after all the bracing, I remember one of the orthopedic surgeons saying I would need a spinal fusion. The bracing hadn’t helped and my spine was in the seventies and eighties curvature-wise. I broke down; being only ten I was scared to death, but we all knew I had to do this in order to make my life better later on. Huge curves can cause breathing issues and so much more. So my parents took me up to Alfred I. Dupont Children’s Hospital in Delaware, a four-hour drive from Virginia where we lived. It was at A.I Dupont where I underwent my nine-hour surgery to correct my curves. Two rods and numerous hooks and screws later, I came out of the operating room. It was a long recovery as I spent two years doing almost nothing but lying down. What I wanted to do most … RIDE! The surgeon had said there was a chance I may never ride again and that riding with spinal fusions can cause issues later on so it’s not really supposed to happen. Me … not riding … I said no way! I loved it too much! So I waited quite some time and tried to get back in the saddle.

Riding before my spinal fusion helped give me some freedom from my brace and it was very therapeutic for me. What was riding after my fusion going to be like? I kept wondering that. It was in 2008 when I tried getting back on a horse and it definitely was not the same as before. It was challenging because my position had changed and I had to learn how to re-ride. I didn’t like myself at all. So I became depressed, hating my body, and thinking I’d never be the way I used to before my fusion and I’d never ride again — seeing others riding well made me miss the way I had used to be.

2010 rolled around and I went off to college. It was then where I started to work in the stables of Bridgewater College. It felt really good being back in the barn around horses. My boss had told me one of the school horses was going to retire and that he needed a home. Gus was an almost twenty-two-year-old sixteen-hand appendix gelding who went by the show name Smile Away. I told my manager I kind of missed riding and she told me that I needed to get on Gus. I called her crazy and said it wasn’t going to happen even though I kind of wanted to. So with my manager’s encouragement and help I got back on, not in an English saddle like I was used to, but a western saddle above Gus. It was almost as if Gus knew I wasn’t too sure about riding again. He took it easy with me and gave me a nice ride that day — so nice I ended up taking him back home with me.

Smile Away went home with me after retiring from the college and he changed my life! I have been horse crazy all my life as riding as a kid was very therapeutic for me between bracings and before the surgery. I thought I’d never really ride again and especially not show because I am still crooked and ride somewhat sideways; riding with others kind of brought me down because I thought I’d never be that good. Well, Gus helped me change my mindset! I soon realized that Gus was taking care of me and with him I knew I could try things again. Gus carried me on lots of trail rides and I even decided to try and show again and with him together we did really well.

I still ride crooked today, but Gus is still around and loves the trails. But I have really changed my mindset and learned anything is possible thanks to that superstar of a horse Smile Away: Gus lives up to his show name and truly makes you smile. Everyone that kept up with me as a kid until now has said how much that horse has changed my life. I still have to go to physical therapy weekly as well as other treatments to help my back muscles and to manage my curves but no matter how hard things get I know I’ve got Smiley who will greet you in the barn any day. Gus is my ride to freedom and getaway from all the treatments. He has definitely changed my life and helped me through all the rough spots!

Here at Horse Nation, we believe that the best therapists are our own horses. We love sharing the stories of special equines and the lessons horses have taught us — email yours to [email protected] to be featured in an upcoming edition of Back on Track “Horse Therapy.” Go Back on Track, and Go Riding!

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