I hadn’t noticed the girl lying on her back on a blanket below the bleachers where I sit. I’m watching other youngsters circling the round corral on their horses––three children at a time, each held in the saddle by an enthusiastic groom on either side. A third groom, or volunteer from the community, carries the lead rope in front. This is the Thursday morning therapeutic riding program for children born with physical limitations, who live in a group home in Bulawayo––they come in a van to the Healing With Horses farm.
“Hi,” I hear from below.
Looking down, I meet the young girl’s penetrating smiling eyes; she doesn’t move or look away.
“My name is Oriane,” I say. “What’s yours?”
“Samu,” she says, with a grin.
“May I ask how old you are?” I say, making the usual enquiries of someone you’ve just met.
“Twenty,” she says.
I climb down from the bleachers to sit on the ground beside her and ask if I may fan the flies away from her face.
“Who is your favourite horse?” I ask.
“Pink Lady,” she says with a dreamy look.
“Samu, are you ready for your ride!” Evans Dzimati, the most enthusiastic of the grooms kneels down beside Samu, and with two others, lifts her horizontally onto the back of Pink Lady, the steadiest of all the therapy horses.
All the while, community volunteers tend to the rest of the children who wait their turn, or recover, giddy and tired, from their ride. Later I hear from Samu the story of her initial fear, which eventually gave way to absolute joy in the movement and freedom she feels on the horse.
Some days the van brings able-bodied kids from the nearby orphanage and crisis centre, and they’re all learning to ride with pride. I marvel at the six-year olds, and the sixteen-year olds, following one another in beautiful rising trots and balanced canters around the perimeter of the riding arena.
I’ve been coming to Zimbabwe for a number of years, mostly to volunteer with horses in safari outfits in the wilderness. Exciting riding and exploration of amazing places, but I’d begun to feel a little self-serving, and to miss having a more meaningful purpose or way to contribute.
Then, this year, I found myself in Bulawayo for the first time. Jill Burgess and Aileen Johnstone founded the “Healing With Horses Zimbabwe” charitable trust on Jill’s farm in 2013, alongside their existing equestrian riding school. Forty-five horses, many rescued, live together on the farmland with six grooms and their young families along with myriad goats, donkeys, geese, chickens, and four friendly dogs.
Healing With Horses relies entirely on donations from business and the community––the riding therapy and lesson programs are offered free of charge for the children. Therapeutic riding for people with injury or chronic pain is also generously offered, gratis. New donors and sponsors welcomed!
A new internship program is for people like me, who want to experience Africa in an economical and deeply meaningful way, behind-the-scenes. We hope others find their way to the farm, so program fees can support the continuing work of Healing With Horses Zimbabwe.
After returning to Canada each time from Zimbabwe, I put together an audio-visual presentation with images, music and stories of my experiences in Africa, partly to fundraise for whatever need I’ve found here. This time, inviting contributions for Healing With Horses will be “an easy ask.”
But more importantly, the purpose of the presentation is to keep my word––when I’ve asked Zimbabweans, black and white alike, “What can I do as one foreign visitor?” the consistent answer is:
“Show your friends in Canada that Zimbabwe is beautiful, tell them we’re happy and friendly, regardless of struggles. Africa is so much more than news reports of corruption, drought, disease and starvation. We love our country and want to share this beauty. Bring your friends when you come back!”
I know, from first-hand experience, that Zimbabwe is safe and truly hospitable for visitors with a heart.
About the Author:
Born and based on the west coast of Canada, Oriane Lee Johnston’s journeys have taken her from meditating in a Buddhist monastery in Burma, to trail riding in the sacred mountains of Ecuador, to exploring the wilderness of Zimbabwe on horseback. In Canada, her coaching practice combines natural horsemanship, mindfulness meditation and Equine Guided Learning. www.orianelee.com