by Charles McGuigan
Marti Brown—dressed in blue jeans, a New England Patriots jacket, gloves, skull cap, and olive green wellies—leads me to the barn where her horse Zak is slowly chewing a clump of hay. In his stall there is a buffer from the wind that is a perpetual gust moving out of the southeast. The day is bright, the sky blue, and the temperature well below freezing. This barn sits on a couple acres atop a knoll overlooking a pond ringed by oak, holly and scrub pine in the far western reaches of Chesterfield County, literally a stone’s throw away from Powhatan.
When Zak is finished munching, he trots out of the barn and joins Fenway, a miniature horse, chest-high and fully grown. Fenway follows Zak around like a puppy. The two meet up with Raven, the latest addition to Marti Brown’s horses.
“I’ve had Zak since the day he was born thirteen years ago,” says Marti.
Zak is a stately bay with the trademark black mane, tail and lower legs. A white blaze from the center of his forehead zigzags down to his muzzle, ending abruptly at the entrance to his right nostril.
“He is just a super, special horse with a really great demeanor,” Marti tells me. “And he’s very good with kids.”
We hear the crunch of tires on the gravel and turn to see a van and two cars come to stop, doors open, and half-a-dozen kids, along with teachers and other staff, spill out. The kids can’t contain their excitement. They race to the barn and surround Zak, who seems to eye each one of them with a pleased intensity. Most Fridays these kids come from their home base at Dominion Academy on Richmond’s North Side. It’s all part of a program Marti started almost a year ago with both Dominion and the Faison School.
“I get the kids here and I just try to make them smile, make them feel good about themselves,” Marti says a little later. “And to get them to do things that they can do, and just get them to reach their full potential as far as taking care of the horses, riding the horses, brushing and grooming them. Just a smile on their faces brings a smile to mine.”
The abundance of smiles in the barn must bring sheer delight to Marti. The kids, all grins and laughter, take turns brushing Zak’s coat from withers to flank, always stroking in the same direction. One student takes a comb and begins working on Zak’s coal black mane.
My son Charles, who is among the kids, squats down and deftly grips Zak’s fetlock, which is just below the knee, and the horse’s leg curls, presenting the hoof. Using a tool called a hoofpick and brush, Charles digs out manure that is captured in Zak’s frog, a triangular groove on the underside of the hoof. Once he works the dirt and manure out of the frog, he brushes away whatever remnants are left.
When the kids have finished grooming Zak, Marti hold up a sling of sorts made of leather straps, and stainless steel rings and buckles.
“What is this called?” she wants to know
“The halter,” one boy says. Then he and another student fit the halter over Zak’s muzzle, up his forehead, and over his ears.
Marti lays what looks like a small, thick blanket over the slight sway of Zak’s back.
“What is this?” she asks.
“The saddle pad,” a boy says, and Marti nods.
Two kids grab the saddle from its roost, and fit it over the pad. One of the boys feeds the girth strap under Zak’s barrel, and the other boy, standing on the opposite side of the horse, grabs it, and secures it to the saddle.
“You’ve got to make sure it’s real tight,” he tells me, as he pulls down on the leather strap.
“If you don’t make it tight,” says the other boy. “The saddle will slip off.”
“And so will you,” his friend says.
“Do any of you guys remember what this is called?” says Marti, pointing to the saddle.
“A stirrup,” someone says.
Marti leads Zak out of the shelter of the barn and onto a flat, open area, next to a large cooler that serves as a mounting block. Standing on top of the cooler, Charles fits his foot into the stirrup, lifts himself up, grabbing the saddle horn, then swings his other leg over the saddle, and settles in, hugging the flanks of the horse with his legs.
Marti leads the horse with a tether until they enter a gated area. She removes the tether and clips on the reins which she hands to Charles, and then he is on his own, arms lifted, tugging on the reins to guide Zak around a series of orange traffic cones, and then along the perimeter of the fence.
The other kids watch on the other side of the fence, each waiting his turn to ride. “It’s like a car that can love you,” one of them says of horseback riding. “Like that guy who had a talking car on that old TV show.”
“Knight Rider?” another kid says, and the boy nods.
Madeline Hartsock, autism services coordinator at Dominion Academy, tells me how this kind of hippotherapy helps her charges. “So we get out here, and they get to get in the barn and do some work,” she says. “We work on some of the goals they’re working on in school, as well as social skills and empathy, and just getting out here and engaging.”
When the last kid has ridden, and the saddle and pad, the bit and bridle are removed and stowed away, Zak retires to his stable, and Marti tells me a thing or two about horses.
“It’s hard to explain,” she says. “Horses just have this thing, you can just relax and forget about everything else in the world, and just get on that horse. Getting on something so big seems to make the kids happy. They seem to love coming here and riding. And horses just have that connection.”
Charles would certainly agree with this. We have come to visit Marti and her horses at other times, and Charles had developed a true bond with Zak. “He is very kind,” Charles says. “I feel like he has a soul and a good heart. Every animal has feelings and emotions, and you can tell Zak cares about the kids. The first time I got on Zak, I felt really nervous, and didn’t want to get on. After a few times I became relaxed and got really used to him. Now, I hop right on. I’m not scared anymore.”
A student standing next to my son, nods along with Charles’s words.
“You know what I like,” this student says. “I like hugging horses. I feel love when I hug them.”