Octavia Brown

When I saw an ad in The Chronicle of the Horse in 1969 seeking to hear from people already working with “riding for the handicapped,” I  was employed full time at McLean Psychiatric Hospital in Belmont, MA, with in-patients and four horses. My work was considered “activities therapy.” So, of course, I answered the ad and went to New York City to a meeting at the Pierre Hotel to see what it was all about.

A group of distinguished people from the U.S. and Canada explained that they wanted to create a national organization, having been inspired by the British Riding for the Disabled Association. Alex Mackay-Smith and Lida McCowan, who would become executive director of the first NARHA center, the Cheff Therapeutic Riding Center in Augusta, MI, asked who would be willing to serve on the founding board of the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association (NARHA).  I said “Yes,” and the rest is history, for me and for what has now become PATH Intl.

I served on NARHA’s board through the early years when the office was in someone’s basement. In those days, we met in person all over the country, traveling at our own expense. Both of the association’s major credentialing programs—center accreditation and instructor certification—were created during face-to-face meetings by committees over several 10-hour days of intense effort. Over the years, the organization and governance of PATH Intl. has changed from a completely grassroots effort to a more corporate process through the use of virtual meetings. While this is inevitable as we have grown, I would still encourage face-to-face meetings when possible as the results can be so fruitful.

In taking part in the creative process to establish an entirely new profession in the United States, I learned how to chair a committee and be a productive board and team member. This eventually led to my election as president of FRDI, now HETI, (Federation of Horses in Education and Therapy International), a worldwide international membership body for therapeutic horsemanship.

Along the way, I learned some important lessons. Never lose your temper. Make sure the quiet people have a voice in all discussions, and control those with too much to say, including oneself. Most of all, ensure that participants’ voices are also heard.

Over the years, I’ve had the privilege of working with so many wonderful participants and equines but one equine who stands out is my own beloved horse Brandy, who worked in my program in New Jersey. A Quarter Horse raised out west to be a stock horse, she could turn on a dime yet would stand anywhere while people clambered on because in those days, we often didn’t have ramps. If a person’s balance shifted, she would try to get underneath them and keep them supported. Once, when a participant was dislodged, she stood stock-still while we dealt with the situation. She adjusted her gait for whoever  was on her back and was a wonderful trail horse. More than one rider fell in love with her just as I had.

Sandy Dota (now sadly deceased), who broke her back in a freak fall off her Western horse, was one of those riders who fell in love with Brandy. After becoming a wheelchair user, she heard about our program and was determined to ride again. At first, she rode Brandy using her Western saddle with a leader and two sidewalkers. Rapidly becoming an independent rider, she went on to show locally and nationally. On Brandy, she qualified to compete in dressage in Denmark where she rode a borrowed horse. Sandy was with me at the end of Brandy’s life when an incurable intestinal tumor was diagnosed.

Sandy became one of the first participants with a disability to become a certified instructor and serve on the NARHA board. She traveled all over the country to meetings and was fond of saying, “A horse put me in a wheelchair, but a horse took me out of it and carried me on to far more than I ever could have achieved alone.” I feel privileged that I could be there to aid in changing her life through horses.

Having been born in England, land of poets and writers who lived with and loved horses, I fondly recall Ronald Duncan’s quote in praise of the horse that opened the Horse of the Year Show in London when I was young: “Where in this wide world can (one) find nobility without pride, friendship without envy or beauty without vanity? Here, where grace is laced with muscle, and strength by gentleness confined.  He serves without servility; he has fought without enmity. There is nothing so powerful, nothing less violent, there is nothing so quick, nothing more patient.  (Our) past has been borne on his back.  All our history is his industry; we are his heirs, he our inheritance.  Ladies and gentlemen: The Horse!”

I am now nearing my retirement from the profession I helped establish in this country. On a personal level, I feel I am one of the luckiest people. I’ve founded a national organization. I’ve served at the international level and traveled to many countries on behalf of EAAT. I’ve had a hand in starting three programs and a state organization.  I’ve taught hundreds of people with disabilities, and now I train instructors at a university. All this happened from attending a meeting in New York City 50 years ago.

Those experiences helped me gain skills in many areas – business management of a nonprofit, committee work, serving on a board and becoming a college professor of equine science – while juggling a marriage and raising two children on a farm in New Jersey. Throughout all this involvement, I appreciated that there is seldom one right way to do almost anything (safety concerns aside, of course).

This advice helped me stay humble and remember that I will never know it all, one of my words of advice for those new to the industry. I learn all the time from my instructors-in-training, just as they learn from me. When  a door opens, go on through, seeking all the help you need along the way. If that door closes, another will open. Nurture your passion. Hug that favorite horse, rejoice when someone posts the trot for the first time, use task analysis to improve someone’s abilities and keep your sense of humor.

For the future, I hope PATH Intl. never loses sight of our origins as a passionate grassroots group with the drive to create something of great value or of the need to safeguard our invaluable co-instructors – the wonderful equines we work with.  Also, I would like to see much more emphasis at the national level on the people we serve. Solicit their involvement in decision-making and, where appropriate, encourage them to consider becoming an instructor. In addition, I would love to see our funding efforts involve more face-to-face meetings for creative problem-solving.