Sean loves horses, and is good with them, but he needs to advance his skills as a rider. He needs someone that he believes in, and that believes in him–easier said than done, for a young man with autism. I’m searching for a trainer.
Today I watch Sean working on a ranch: cleaning stalls, hanging feed buckets, and organizing horse tack. I sit on a weathered wooden bench in the shadows and out his periphery. I think he does best when he’s not aware that I’m watching. Is he concerned that I’ll judge him? Does he pick up on my nervous energy? I don’t know, but here I am, the clandestine observer.
Out in the arena, a teenage girl is riding a tall, brown horse, under the watchful eye of her trainer, Michael. Her braided blonde hair sways beneath her helmet as she negotiates the barrels, positioned strategically for instruction.
“Ask your horse to stop,” calls Michael in calm but firm voice.
“Now, ask your horse to back up,” he continues.
I watch the horse stop and then back up. Instructions received and implemented. Not being a rider myself, I’m impressed with this display. I’m also struck by Michael’s language, as he tells the rider to ask, not tell, her horse what to do.
As the lesson continues, I ponder. Michael looks like the original Marlboro Man. His ever-present, sweat stained cowboy hat is pulled tight down to his bushy eyebrows. His tanned skin tells a story, well-worn and experienced, like a saddle. From time to time Michael heads to a private spot to smoke a cigarette out of sight from his young students. Is Michael Sean’s future trainer?
He calls to Sean, “Seany, would you please bring the steps over, so this young lady can dismount.”
Sean reacts immediately, placing the steps in the arena; then glancing toward Michael.
“Nice job, partner!” Michael smiles at Sean.
I rehearse the conversation I’m about to have with Michael, when I realize he’s done with this lesson. I see the flash of his lighter from his retreat behind the barn. It’s now or never, let’s go.
As I approach him, I try to harness my fear of rejection. Onward. Time is short. Dispensing with the small talk, I blurt out, “Michael, would you consider giving lessons to Sean? You know that he has autism, but he’s ridden before.”
Michael’s face reveals his surprise at this request. He responds, “I’ve never worked with someone with, with,” he hesitates to fill in the blank.
“Special needs?” I offer a phrase.
“Yeah, that,” he responds.
“Can we give it a try? No harm, no foul, if it doesn’t work out,” I offer as reassurance.
“Okay. Let’s try it tomorrow at 5:00.”
“Perfect. We’ll see you then.”
Driving home with Sean, I realize that I’ve left him out of my plan. I do this out of habit to protect him from disappointment. I need to start including him in these discussions if he’s going to be prepared for the real world. Next time, I tell myself
“So, Sean, Michael is going to give you a lesson tomorrow. How does that sound?” I ask.
Silence. His expression signals that my words have been received, and the input is being processed, on Sean’s time.
I wait, resisting my impulse to say something else. Let him process.
Finally he speaks, “But I don’t have a saddle.”
“Michael says you can borrow one of his.” I respond.
“Cool, I have to find my helmet in my closet.” He says nodding his head thoughtfully.
Good sign, I think. He’s bought into the plan and moving on to the details.
The next day we drive across Santa Clarita to the ranch. It’s raining. I click my windshield wipers to a faster speed.
“Might not work out today with this rain, Sean.” I try to soften what I think is his pending disappointment.
“Nah. It’ll be okay,” he says with a confident expression.
I sense that this is a good time to hold off on more discussion.
The rain stops, but the restless clouds look ominous.
We arrive. I plan to get to Michael before Sean. I’m not that quick. Sean reaches him first so I stop, and watch as the two of them engage in serious talk.
Suddenly, Sean turns and runs toward the tack room. I can’t see his face. I’m hoping for the best.
Michael starts toward me, and I take a few steps to meet him. His blue eyes are glistening with moisture, I think he’s choking back tears. My heart sinks.
“What is it?” I ask, expecting the worst.
Michael’s voice quivers as he speaks, “I told Seany it probably wasn’t a good day to ride, with the rain and all. He looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘Cowboys ride in the rain!’”
I gulp. My turn to hold back tears.
Michael continues, “I looked back at that determined face and said, ‘You’re right, partner. Saddle up, and let’s do this’.”
The lesson is over. Sean merrily skips, leading his horse away. I walk to Michael to get his assessment. He speaks before I can. His voice, punctuated with sobs, asks “Know what the new motto for my ranch is?”
“I haven’t a clue,” I respond.
“Cowboys Ride in the Rain,” he says.
I smile. Looks like Sean has found his new trainer.
Editor’s note: The author is in the process of writing a book titled “Growing Up with Sean,” which will include this and other “adventures” that the author and Sean have shared.