The sounds of horse whinnies and thumping hooves filled the night air at the Grange Fair this past weekend. Sleep eluded me as I tossed and turned in the camper parked by the horse stalls. My daughter, Brooke, has Down syndrome and she would be competing the next day in two Therapeutic events, The Obstacle Trail, Minimum Assistance, and the Walk Trot Equitation, Minimum Assistance at the District 4-H Horse Show.
Two weeks earlier at RoundUp, Brooke won first place in both events and proudly held up her blue ribbons as she celebrated her victory. Brooke’s achievements were uncontested but not effortless. She competed against the shadow of personal pride. She had done her best and was rewarded for this effort.
As her moment of opportunity to capture a District win came closer, Brooke’s “pit crew” which we now call the “barn crew” anxiously waited behind the fence. Phil McAfee, her instructor, walked her around the obstacle course explaining the pattern to her. Brooke and Phil, and Sammy his pony, have been practicing for this moment all year. But now, Brooke was suddenly faced with a difficult situation. She had to memorize new situations on the obstacle trail and navigate Sammy through the course. According to the rule book, “A lead rope may or may not be attached to the mount,” Phil asked me, “Do you want me to use the lead rope?”
I knew if a lead rope was attached to Sammy, Brooke would charter the course perfectly with Phil’s guidance. If I let her compete alone, I risked her making a mistake and losing a chance for her dream to compete at the State competition. I did not know anything about the other three children but I did know my daughter. So with a knot in my stomach I decided, “No lead rope.” A parent is never certain when it is the right time to let go of their child, but my husband and I both felt Brooke deserved the opportunity to take the reins herself, even if it meant not moving on.
As Phil, Brooke and Sammy started the course, my heart was pounding with pride, my eyes were filling with tears, my hands were shaking with excitement. I could barely focus my camera. Without flaw, mishap or hesitation she finished the course and lifted her hand in victory. It didn’t matter three more competitors needed their turn, she felt like a winner. The barn crew erupted.
Parents of special needs children know we seldom have an opportunity when we forget our child has a special need and we enter into the world of competition. My celebration immediately ceased when I painfully realized that while cheering for Brooke, I had silently begun my own private horse race in my heart with compassion and competition running side by side; only I was riding both horses. I was tortured with the irony of the fairness of competition between special needs children. The very group I passionately support I was now in competition with. Kodak flashes of emotions were ripping me apart and I did not have the answers or the time to categorize them.
I filed my thoughts as all four children finished and the final verdict was in. Brooke placed second in the event and was moving on to the State competition in Harrisburg. The “barn crew” cheered and I watched my daughter sitting tall and proud on Sammy, not really understanding what it all meant. She only knew she was loved and we were proud of her. I envied her world of innocence and freedom. She beamed over at me with her smile and proudly held up her red ribbon. I smiled back with a heart of pride and we were all wiping our eyes.
With the next event seconds away we had no time to celebrate or analyze. Phil asked me a question for the second time that day? Do you want me to use the lead rope? I didn’t realize it at the time but the real question was, who was I putting in the ring, compassion or competition? I began to question the definition of a winner. I told Phil, “No lead rope, let her do it alone.” With the barn crew behind her, Brooke was already a winner.
The riders went forward. She rode beautifully but suddenly the judge gave an instruction and Brooke began to turn Sammy in the wrong direction. She had made a mistake and it would cost her. As it turned out, perhaps her mishap gave another child their chance to go the State Competition. I believe that in allowing her to make her own choice, God took her mistake and turned it into someone else’s blessing. Maybe if we let go of our children and allow them to take the reins of their life, we allow the hand of God to direct them and others will be blessed.
Brooke lifted her red and yellow ribbons and smiled with pride at my husband and me. She asked me, “Mom how did I do?” She doesn?t even notice the numbers 2 and 3. I said “Brooke, your ribbons are beautiful, now you have a blue, red and yellow ribbon. You have a rainbow.” I am so blessed to live beneath this rainbow every day of my life.
My husband and I were not prepared for Brooke’s success. I enrolled her in the Galloping Gold Horse Club for social reasons. But their love for horses is addictive and we caught the fever. She would not be going to the States without the barn crew and their support. In October, she will be traveling to Harrisburg with a borrowed trailer. She will be riding Sammy, a borrowed pony with his own handicap; he is blind in his right eye. She will be smiling as she sits on top of a borrowed saddle that she feels at home in and using a borrowed bridle that will be polished by her little hands. She will be wearing boots that were broken in by someone else so they won’t hurt her feet. Her blanket tucked under her saddle is borrowed from a friend. And Sammy will have the hands of her 4-H friends all over him as they help Brooke groom and prepare him for his big day. Sammy, has added his own 2-H’s, to 4-H, the horse from heaven. It isn’t because I want Brooke to borrow all these things but somehow I feel like a piece of all of us will be in the ring with her. This is what our 4-H club is all about.
Brooke’s story has taught us that we are all judges in life and we all silently appoint ribbons (or opinions) to those around us. I wonder how many people I have unfairly pinned in last place with a simple glance. We all ride horses of compassion and competition but we get so blinded by our need to win, we forget we are holding the reins of choice. Brooke has taught me that the only ribbons that truly count are the ribbons of family and friends that surround us. I wish we could all see our life as Brooke does. Our victories and failures are not separate events but one beautiful continuous rainbow.
In October, when Brooke and another 4-H friend in her club, Abby, are in Harrisburg, Carrie Underwood may sing “Jesus take the wheel,” but our club will be singing “Jesus take the reins.” Brooke turns 16 on October 29 and no matter what the outcome is in Harrisburg, we will celebrate the most important thing, her life, her rainbow. Am I nervous? You bet. I worry I will forget to enjoy my daughter for who she is not what she does. But I have Brooke and a whole barn crew to remind me, that somewhere over the rainbow, skies are blue but somewhere <EM>under</EM> the rainbow there is Sammy and Brooke and the whole barn crew.