Memories of Joy Aboard an Old Gray Mare

Suzy Hopkins
By Suzy Hopkins September 15, 2010 10:07

Lynn and friend Kazzi

For two hours each week, 83-year-old Lynn Proctor sheds life’s most difficult labels and climbs back into the saddle of her childhood.

The years disappear, too, as she trains her beloved mare, directing her around the dusty arena, over to the fence to grab some plastic rings, and through a line of orange cones.

Lynn is a natural at this: heels down, hands relaxed but firm on the reins, body back and easy in the saddle. Why this comes so naturally, she can’t recall exactly. But her body clearly remembers.

“Do you remember where you rode when you were younger?” asks Carolyn White, founder of the Ride Away Center east of Sonora, one of two area ranches specializing in therapeutic riding.

Lynn thinks for a few seconds, then says, “I don’t remember too well. Well, maybe I do … it was a pretty large place. What’s it called when you have trees?”

Turning her attention to Kazzi, the 30-year-old mare she’s riding, Lynn leans over to tell her, “I don’t remember what the name of that place was, Sweet Potato,” then pats the old Arabian affectionately.

Later, her daughter, Peggy Dylan, fills in the blanks. Raised on a Visalia orange ranch, Lynn grew up riding in the orchards. She helped with roundups at the cattle ranch where she kept her horse, spent summers on horseback in the mountains and, well into her fifties, rode often with her daughters in the years that followed.

Those were busy and tumultuous years. Lynn earned two degrees from Stanford University, a bachelor’s in biology and a master’s in education that she used to teach special ed classes. She and her husband, a physicist, lived in Switzerland for several years.

The death of their first child, a daughter, caused heartbreak. To cope, Lynn enrolled at the Jung Institute in Zurich, and became fascinated with psychology and psychotherapy. Later, after raising three daughters and divorcing, she moved to Tuolumne County, where she worked as a Stanislaus National Forest biologist. With friends, she also led dream groups that sprang from her Swiss studies.

In 2002, her daughters noticed that their mother’s brilliant mind was changing. Appointments were forgotten, and burners left on. Small and seemingly inconsequential signs were followed by dangerous ones, and finally, a diagnosis from the San Francisco-based Institute on Aging: moderate dementia.

Lynn lived with Peggy for the past two years, but the disease has continued to progress. Earlier this year she moved into an assisted-living home. As Peggy saw her mother slipping into depression, she thought she might enjoy being on a horse again.

She contacted longtime friend White, who runs the Ride Away Center off Woodham Carne Road near Tuolumne. The ranch is certified by the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association.

“I don’t get paid for this work, but I have the joy of seeing how it can help people,” says Carolyn, 59, who teaches riders of all ages and with various disabilities, including those recovering from strokes.

The center grew out of a 4-H project Carolyn started 23 years ago, and became a nonprofit in 1991. She runs it with the help of volunteers and her husband of 39 years, David, an electrician. The center serves five or six riders each week.

Lynn may well be the happiest, judging from her nonstop smile.

“You two old gray mares look pretty good together,” Carolyn calls up to Lynn as she and Kazzi pass by.

Lynn grins and breaks into spirited song: “The old gray mare ain’t what she used to be, ain’t what she used to be …”

After the first lesson a few months ago, Peggy says, “She looked at me with dreamy eyes and said, ‘I feel like I’m getting my life back.’”

At the start of today’s ride, Lynn couldn’t remember that the place with trees was the orchard of her childhood. An hour later she says, with a bit of wonder in her voice, “I think I’m starting to remember some things.”

As she rounds the arena again, she shares some memories of her father and childhood times with volunteer Carolyn Enriquez, who walks alongside.

Carolyn White has had stroke patients as Ride Away students, but this is her first experience with dementia – and a remarkable one, she says. She believes the rhythmic motion and connection with the horse has unlocked memories for Lynn. Peggy agrees. Certainly it has unlocked joy.

“Her enjoyment of life has just increased tremendously, and access to her childhood memories, and her sense of having value,” Peggy says.

“Also, something that’s hard to quantify, almost a spiritual essence – communing with the horse and with nature. She’s just so happy coming here. There are two hours every week in which she has this joy in being alive that carries through her whole week.”

Next week, Lynn will return. Not as an elderly woman stricken by a disease that continues to shadow her mind and treasured memories, and not as a care-home patient.

Instead, when she climbs aboard Kazzi again, she will be a rider and a trainer, reconnecting with the horse she loves.

The Ride Away Center is at 18200 Woodham Carne Road, near Tuolumne. Cost to riders is $50 for each two-hour lesson on horse care and Western riding, with a sliding scale available based on ability to pay. Contact Carolyn White at (209) 928-4092.

Copyright © 2010, Friends and Neighbors Magazine

Suzy Hopkins
By Suzy Hopkins September 15, 2010 10:07
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