The Gift Horse: How Equine Therapy Sets My Daughter Free

In January First: A Child’s Descent into Madness and Her Father’s Struggle to Save Her, Michael Schofield tells the story of his daughter’s devastating diagnosis of schizophrenia at age six and his family’s inspiring struggles to deal with her disease. Here, Schofield shares how equine therapy helps Jani forget about her illness for a few minutes each week.

Jani’s equine therapy is a gift from a boy named Beau Forlizzi.

Beau used to ride here at Carousel Ranch – a ranch in Santa Clarita, California, that offers equestrian therapy for disabled children – on Dawn, the very same draft horse Jani is riding now.

I hear Jani cry out, “No! I don’t want to,” and I turn from the stable I am cleaning out. I already know what is happening. The instructor, Katie, holds Jani’s hand, encouraging her to stand up on Dawn’s back. They call this “vaulting.” I hear Jani’s whimpering over Katie’s calm words. Jani’s done this a hundred times before, but she never gets over her fear.

I remember a time when Jani had no fear. No fear of dangling her legs off the balcony of our third floor apartment. No fear when she spent her first of many nights in a child psychiatric unit. No fear when she tried to jump out of her bedroom window.

Fear is not necessarily a bad thing. Fear keeps you safe. Fear keeps you alive. A lack of fear is one of the “negative symptoms” of schizophrenia. Most people know about the “positive symptoms:” the auditory and visual hallucinations, the disordered thinking, the possible violent outbursts. But those are easier to treat than the negative symptoms. The negative symptoms are things that most people have but those with schizophrenia are missing: the ability to respond appropriately to others, the ability to feel a full emotional range, the ability to feel fear, the ability to feel at all.

The ability to feel love.

It is natural to feel fear when you stand up on the back of a horse. The fact that Jani cries a bit means she is coming back to us from the place she went when she was acutely psychotic.

Holding onto Katie and the instructor on the other side of Dawn, Jani ascends into the air above Dawn’s back. Katie smiles. “You’re doing it, Jani!”

She whimpers and suddenly breaks into a wide smile, as if reality, this reality, finally caught up to her and she realizes she is indeed standing on Dawn’s back.

This is Beau’s gift to Jani. He opened a window through which our world can reach through to Jani and bring her completely into this moment, even if it is just for a few minutes once a week.

Jani is guided back down as Dawn plods calmly, a lot like life. Life moves whether you want to get up or not. Most of us don’t think about it. But Jani stares at the bottom of the horse’s neck where it meets the torso and the connection with her body. This is my favorite part. She is moving her eyes back and forth between the horse and her own body, focusing, matching her movements to Dawn’s movements. In every other interaction Jani has, there is always a filter of her illness. Except here. Except now. The need to focus on Dawn’s movement banishes the illness for the moment.

I smile and shovel another load of horse manure. I don’t have to do this. But I want to. I could never repay Beau or his family and Carousel Ranch for this gift. From the moment the heart starts to beat, it is counting down. It has a genetically pre-programmed number of beats, averaging out to about 2.5 billion beats over the course of a lifetime.

Complications from Beau’s extensive physical disabilities finally caught up with him and he died at 18 years old. It is the money that his mother, Terri, and brother, AJ, raised in Beau’s memory that pays for Jani’s riding.

Beau was never able to speak, but his gift to Jani speaks louder than any words.

Schofield blogs about his family’s experiences at janisjourney.org. For more information about Carousel Ranch, visit www.carouselranch.org.


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January First by Michael Schofield
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