Verizon Center floors were covered with sawdust and hay Oct. 23 for the Washington International Horse Show. The crowd applauded as Leesburg therapy pony Andy, winner of this year’s Klinger Award for Honor and Service, hoofed his way into the arena.
The flaxen-maned honoree didn’t seem impressed with the crowds, nor his photo op with Klinger, a stately black military horse that has escorted President Obama and serves in the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment Caisson Platoon. Instead, Andy nosed his way impatiently toward a hefty bucket of carrots cradled in a handler’s arms.
Those who work with Andy say it’s a trademark of the Haflinger pony’s personality.
“That’s his independent spirit,” said Kathy Blaine, program director at Loudoun Therapeutic Riding in Leesburg. Andy works at the center, helping children and adults with physical, cognitive or mental health challenges learn horsemanship skills.
The pony has logged many miles pulling clients in carts when they can’t sit astride him. He also works in Loudoun Therapeutic Riding’s hippotherapy program, in which he helps physical, occupational and speech therapists work with clients.
Andy’s independent spirit — or “personality,” which Blaine points out is horse-speak for “obstinate pony” — originally led him to be labeled as a challenge. His previous owner approached the Loudoun center because Andy wasn’t working out in another therapeutic riding program. In spite of his history, Loudoun Therapeutic Riding decided to take on Andy.
“We just felt he had so many gifts and talents that outweighed the things that made him the way he is,” Blaine said. “He’s not easy to manage, in that he’s smart, he’s opinionated, he’s got tons of personality.”
Andy’s headstrong intelligence also makes for the stalwart heart of a first-rate therapy pony.
“He knows,” Blaine said. “He knows who he needs to be really calm and still with — he has a sixth sense about what he needs to do, and when. And he chooses to do it.”
One young student at the Leesburg center uses a ventilator and can’t sit up on his own because of a mitochondrial disorder.
“Andy knows when [the student] is in the barn. He puts his head down so he can see him; he’s gentle when he takes a carrot from his bowl,” Blaine said.
A disabled veteran with a hip injury once worked with the instructors at the Loudoun center. “He desperately wanted to sit on a horse,” Blaine said. “It was only for a few seconds, but Andy stood like a statue and did not move a hair on his body while this gentleman got on, with the help of his friends.”
Andy’s personality and his “sixth sense” were documented in the application the center submitted for the Klinger award.
“Andy is not an obedient animal,” therapeutic riding instructor Allison Goldfarb wrote. “He is quite powerful and does not think twice about breaking a fence or unhinging a door to go where he wants to go. However, he transforms into the embodiment of service and honor when in the presence of adults and children with emotional, physical or cognitive challenges.
“He does not put a hoof wrong in a healing session with a participant, especially veterans. Andy serves by choice, with complete presence and attention to his riders and non-riders.”
Blaine summed up the contradiction between the pony’s independence and his gentleness.
“He’ll try to make his own decisions, but when called upon in a lesson or healing session with a participant, he becomes completely trustworthy. He’s a steady guy. When he’s in work mode, he’s just an outstanding individual. Horses can be very distracted by things and unpredictable sometimes, but when he’s at work, he’s as predictable as a horse can be. And that’s important in our line of work.”
Lanyi is a freelance writer.