Most of you will have read my stories about my son David before. David gets through life with five different challenges that label him different from most kids. Most kids can get up and run down the street with ease. When David attempts such a simple thing - it’s like he’s wearing a backpack full of rocks, has one hand tied behind his back, the road becomes a steep hill, and he’s really, really drunk. Just for him to get the will together to make the attempt is heroic as far as I’m concerned. A new place and a new situation can really throw him for a loop – until his curiosity takes over and he starts exploring.
David also speaks seven different languages – maybe more. Born in the city, this twelve-year-old has always been fascinated with farm animals. Just this spring he’s had a chance to try out his special language talents.
At Greg and Karen Barrington’s farm, David gets to speak chicken, cat, dog, turkey, rabbit (that’s a challenging one) and best of all – horse. Some of David’s friends at church have offered to sponsor some riding lessons for him and tell his parents about Greg’s “Motivational Response Training” business.
The website (http://www.gregbarrington.com/) reads “There is a better way! A Fear and Stress Free method of training and schooling horses ensuring continuous positive results.” Greg trains both horse and human to find some ways of working together.
Also, when people give up on their horses, Greg takes them in. Horses that have suffered from neglect. Horses that just refuse to cooperate. Horses that have endured the frustrations of owners who think violence is the only language this animal will respond to. Greg gives the horse a new home and a new beginning.
You can take the descriptions above and replace the word “horses” with the word “children”. Greg and Karen know there’s way too many children in the same situation – and their farm is a place for new beginnings for children too.
It takes three visits before David is ready to saddle up. On the first visit, he’s very excited but unsure about meeting all his favourite farm animals nose to nose. The flock of bunnies that swarm to the edge of their pen like hungry piglets wanting to suckle – is a soft and fuzzy sensory overload for David.
He sits for long stretches on the ground to take in the barn’s special lighting, sounds, and smells. The barn cat comes by and steps into his lap for a few strokes and a chat. The turkey learns to keep one eye on that little guy at all times – he likes to wrestle. But it’s really the several large equine beasts that intrigue David. They call out to him from their stalls and his smile extends into a wide grin. Under Greg’s watchful eye, he strokes their noses and necks and talks and listens and communicates with them.
David first meets Phantom outside in the corral. Unlike the bunnies, as soon as he sees this horse, he climbs through the fence rails and walks right up to this big black beast and starts touching and talking and pushing and trying to climb up on him.
Phantom is a special animal. The way Greg talks about him, it’s as if Phantom is the teacher and he’s the student. Phantom is ever-patient and forgiving when it comes to children. But put an adult on his back - who thinks they’re in control - and Phantom will take them for an unforgettable ride. Phantom and Greg have a special relationship…
For Greg, every horse has a story and a unique personality. It’s a matter of getting to know them and working with as much trust as they are able to give – each day a little more - maybe. It’s up to how they’re feeling, or he’s feeling, and how he might cajole a little more humour or curiosity from them - help them to risk trusting, trying something new. “Horses love attention” he explains, “and when they get it - they love to work with me.”
Greg’s a storyteller - a communicator. He learned to talk horse helping his Blacksmith grandfather when he was David’s age – watching, listening, speaking with hands and eyes - approaching every animal with the awe and respect due every one of God’s creatures.
As he tells me story after story of kids and horses and owners and other animals, I get the sense that he’s part rodeo clown, part denim-clad psychiatrist, part God-gifted sage, part baloney, and totally “into” what he’s doing. He’s someone who is doing what he’s supposed to be doing – and loving it as much as David is loving his trips to the farm.
Greg is impressed at how relaxed and easy David sits in the saddle – how he just naturally takes the reigns in both hands and moves as Phantom moves. “I have adults who it takes months and months before they get to where David’s starting from.” Much of Greg’s work is about getting both horse and human to a place where fears subside and a calm is achieved - where learning comes naturally – human responding to horse – horse responding to human.
David often struggles to find words in English to express himself. He’ll often turn to one of his favourite animal languages - barking or meowing, howling or snorting – depending on how he’s feeling. These days a horse whinny or a breathy-raspberry fills in, like a picture, for a thousand words. What does David think about going for his next visit to see Greg and Phantom?
“Whahoo!” he whoops - speaking right from his heart to mine.