When most people think of therapy they envision one on one conversations with a mental health professional, or sweating from strenuous exercise as they work to heal an injured body part. But therapy comes in so many different forms as we now know the benefits of alternative therapeutic medicine. Let’s consider the healing properties of equine. Horses have long served mankind via a variety of work applications and have been a source of recreation and escape from the day to day pressures of our hectic lives. These large majestic loving creatures offer so much more than 1 horsepower to pull a cart or a plow. They too are doctors of therapy, healing the soul and the spirit from deep within. Deenie McKeever knows far too well the love that these animals have for us and the benefits they provide. She’s been riding recreationally ever since she was a little girl, but it was only after a friend talked her into getting her own horse in 2008 that Deenie’s passion would blossom into a special resource for the disabled community.
Deenie’s father Dan McKeever was a pioneer in the prosthetics industry who exposed her to the disabled community for most of her young adult life. After his passing, she came up with the idea to honor his legacy and give back to the disabled in the form of McKeever’s First Ride. Part of the OPAF (Orthotic & Prosthetics Activities Foundation) family of First Clinics, MFR offers the disabled and their families (at no costs) a chance to experience all that horses provide in the form of therapeutic rehabilitation. At 4’11” Deenie packs quite a bit of influence in her petite frame as evident by the 90+ volunteers that show up to help. The event is held every year during the month of April at the Gwinnett County Fairgrounds, just 1 hour north of downtown Atlanta GA. Not only is there horseback riding, there’s inspirational speakers, massage therapy, arts & crafts, a petting zoo, steer roping (stationary steer), carriage rides, music, food and fun for the whole family. The most important aspect of McKeever’s First Ride is the healing that it offers. There’s a serenity that one feels after just a few minutes of being there. I for one can tell you that my blood pressure was greatly reduced after I cuddled a baby bunny in the petting zoo. Who doesn’t love bunnies?
This year marked my second time attending McKeever’s First Ride. In 2014 I was honored by being the guest speaker and I shared a message of not letting your disability define who you are or what you want to accomplish in life. This year’s special guest speaker was a true American hero, Army Sgt Dale Beatty. Dale lost both of his legs below the knees as a result of his humvee striking an anti tank mine in Iraq. After his rehabilitation, and feeling overwhelmed with a need to help support his brothers in arms, Dale started a non profit foundation called Purple Heart Homes which provides housing solutions for veterans and their families. College Park Industries, a prosthetic foot company in Warren MI designed a custom prosthetic foot called the Soleus “Tactical” in honor of Dale & Purple Heart Homes. A portion of the proceeds from each foot sold goes to support the foundation. Dale and I both wear College Park Soleus feet and I couldn’t be more proud to show my metal with a hero like him. Let me say “thank you” to all those who wear Soleus feet. Together we are strong!
There’s so much going on during McKeever’s First Ride but out of everyone in attendance, arguably the stars are the horses. Especially Horizon, Smoke and Accolade who also star in the television series “Sleepy Holly.” I wonder if the horses know they get paid for being on tv? Deenie and her mounted drill team “The Rusty Spurs” rode these horses while carrying our nation’s flag during the opening ceremony. All 3 were available for rides and photos throughout the day. Try asking that from a Hollywood “A” list actor. This event is the perfect place for the disabled and their family members to bond while doing something different. Not many people get to ride horses, get a massage, listen to inspirational speakers, or interact with baby animals on a regular basis. Think of how much better our lives would be if we did.
I have to give credit to my 16 year old daughter Autumn for filling the role of my highly underpaid “assistant.” She took most of the photos of the event for my blog and has travelled with me to various amputee events across the country. Volunteering is an important aspect of our family dynamic and I hope that by exposing her to charities like this, she will grow to be a woman of service, always thinking of others and their needs as well as her own. We need to realize that people come in all different shapes, sizes, colors and ability levels. At the end of the day we are all God’s children and we need to lend a hand where needed, as some of us have a heavier load to bear in life. I’ve found that those who do carry that heavier load often times are the strongest people because a positive by product of that heavy load is strength.
By 3pm it was time for Autumn and I to hit the road and make our way back to the Atlanta airport for our flight back to Philadelphia. Many attendees take home different memories from McKeever’s First Ride. Some experience a renewed confidence in life after riding a horse for the first time since their amputation. Others feel a sense of joy just by being able to talk to someone who looks like them and shares the same disability. For me, it’s being able to inspire and influence my fellow disabled brothers and sisters to believe in themselves and their abilities. Letting them know that they are truly special and that the world is illuminated by their life journey. One thing I’ve learned is that there’s no need to be perfect to inspire others. People get inspired by how you deal with your imperfections in life! Confidence can be infectious. In plan on positively infecting as many people as I can.