In high school I volunteered at a youth ranch. This place had the mission to help hurting kids heal with the gift of horses. A mentor would be paired with a child and a horse and spend about an hour and a half together. Doing anything from chores to brushing horses to actually learning to ride. This place was integral to my journey towards becoming an equine assisted learning facilitator and founding Starting Gate because of experiences like I had one day with a big and thick but skittish Appaloosa horse and the tiniest 7 year old girl I've ever met. We'll call her Annie, the horse was named Barney. Annie was recently placed in foster care and was brought to the ranch by her case worker. She kept her eyes on the ground as I introduced myself and her squeak of a "Hi" was barely audible. The case worker shrugged, gently pushed her towards me then went and sat at the guardian's circle of shaded picnic tables to wait.
Annie followed me over to the hitching posts where we had horses waiting. Barney had been in the program for a while, he was rescued from a trainer that used clubs to beat the horses into submission. Barney had mostly healed from his past abuse, but he was still what we call "head shy", he vividly remembered being beaten in the face with a club and was never going to allow anything to touch his face again if he had any say about it. He was not vicious at all, just kept his face away from anything that might touch it and tended to be constantly on high alert - never letting his guard down enough to relax. We had worked with him enough that we could put a halter on his head to safely have him secured to work with children, but that was about it. I don't know Annies history. We are never really told where the children come from or what's happened to them, after doing this kind of work for this many years (I'm still actively involved in a similar ranch but now in a different state than where Barney lives) I can often get a good guess of whats happened but I really never want to know. It's too heartbreaking to know what these innocents have endured, just like the horses. We figured Barney and Annie might be a good match. Physically they couldn't be any different. Annie had long dark hair and like I said was so tiny. They told us she was seven years old but I would have guessed more like 5. She had the posture and look in those big brown eyes of someone who's seen more than her years usually hold though. Barney on the other hand was huge for an Appaloosa. He was built like a draft horse, big thick legs, a huge powerful hind end and yet scraggly barely there mane and tail. Thats kind of typical of Appaloosa's and I made what I thought was a funny comment about how Annie had more hair than Barney did. She didn't respond. I handed her a brush and showed her how to follow the hair and brush Barney. Everything she did was hesitant, I held the brush out to her for a couple beats before she took it from my hand. She could barely reach his stomach but after gathering herself she tentatively reached up and lightly touched the brush to his side. I was chattering about how old Barney was and how long he'd been at the ranch when suddenly he popped his head up and snorted, his entire body going tense ready to run. I looked over and saw that a different child had ran past, head back with laughter and a pool noodle raised in his arms waggling in the air over his head. Barney had seen it too and instantly went into code red alert just in case that pool noodle was going to come any closer to his face. Annie felt it too and squeaked while she jumped back away from the horse. Barney had kept Annie safe, he never moved his feet, but his reaction to the pool noodle was still evident. He was shaking and his eyes were wide as he watched the other boy run off to the other side of the clearing. "Its OK Annie, Barney just got a little scared. Are you OK?" Annie looked up at me, actually looked into my eyes and I saw how beautiful her little face was. "But he's so big. Big things get scared too?" She was genuine. Clear of voice and stared into my soul searching for an honest answer. I was instantly near tears. "Oh honey," I said as I dropped to one knee to be closer to her level "Of course big things get scared. Everyone gets scared sometimes and its OK. Its OK to be scared no matter how big or little you are. You have been so brave to be out here today and work with this big horse. Do you think we can tell Barney it was just a silly pool noodle and that he's ok? Do you think he can trust you to help keep him safe? He really just wants to be safe." Annie looked from me to the horse. Her face scrunched up in thought. "Yes. I want to be safe too. I think Barney is a lot like me." She turned to the big horse who was slowly letting the tension out of his body but still held his eyes wide. "You're OK Barney. We're here with you." That was the only time I ever saw Annie. I don't know what happened but she never came out to the ranch again. I will never ever forget her though, and the lesson she and Barney taught me that day - that even big things get scared and even little things can have the most courage you'll ever see in such a tiny package.