Mackenzie’s Journey

Story by Brie Nelson
Photos by Prose

By the age of 4, it was obvious that Mackenzie Nelson processed things differently than other children around her. We became aware that she was concerned about things on closer to an adult level and needed to understand detailed plans of her future and safety. Just after she turned 5, we discovered that Mackenzie was struggling with extreme anxiety, executive functions, moderate to severe ADHD, as well as an abnormally high IQ.

It wasn’t until several years later that we fully understood that Kenzie’s anxiety was actually five different types, all pushed together. It is truly amazing how much her little mind and body is covering at such a fast pace. No wonder she was struggling with crying all day long, being driven by irrational fears, asked “what if” situations constantly and could not focus for longer than four minutes at a time.

About this time, Mackenzie also asked to start riding horses. In fact, she didn’t just ask, she begged. The begging continued for almost 10 months until we finally conceded. Mackenzie started horseback riding lessons one day a week on a sweet pony named “Blossom.”

By about the third lesson, she couldn’t stop crying while riding the horse. Her trainer at the time gave her a stern but loving warning to either focus on riding the horse or get off. He explained that the horse can feel your emotions, and if you are crying and carrying on, the horse can sense your feelings. Mackenzie processed this information for a moment, sat up straight on top of Blossom and took a few deep breaths. Knowing that something else could feel her feelings was all she needed to know at that moment. From that point forward, riding horses became a way to focus and calm herself. After some time, while Mackenzie was still a new young rider, the barn needed to make some changes, including their location and number of horses. Blossom needed a new family or she was going to be sold to the stockyard.

The timing was horrible, but there was no denying how beneficial the little pony was for Mackenzie. The decision was made, and Blossom became Mackenzie’s first horse. As a small elderly lesson pony, she was worth her weight in gold to a 6-year-old little girl whose inner dialogue was too big for herself.

So we changed barns, started training over cavalettis and equitation, changed our daily routine and off we went. Blossom took a while to warm up to new people and took markedly longer with men, but it never failed – if Mackenzie was at the barn, Blossom was by her side. Kenzie learned valuable lessons about owning a horse versus simply showing up once a week and riding a horse.

During one ride in particular, Mackenzie fell off Blossom and landed underneath her. What could have been a painful mistake was nothing more than a bruised ego. Blossom immediately froze when Kenzie fell. She then carefully and intentionally moved one foot at time to navigate around Mackenzie until she was no longer standing over her. Blossom then turned around, walked to Mackenzie and nudged her with her nose, almost as if saying, “It is going to be OK, my little girl. Stand up and let’s try again.” Kenzie stood up and wrapped her arms around Blossom’s neck in a heap of tears. Not tears of pain but tears of understanding, love and appreciation – tears that released fear and embraced an unspoken but visible relationship between girl and pony.

We were active duty military family, and in July 2017, it was time to move our full crew cross-country. Mackenzie was a brand new 7 and had been riding horses for a while now, but she was still leaning heavily on Blossom to help with emotional regulation and security, especially during a period of change. When we arrived at the new barn, Kenzie’s focus shifted from her personal realm of safety and security to that of her horse. Every day was another question about how Blossom was transitioning, if she understood, how she liked it, and how much time do they get together today. Mackenzie finally had a handle on her emotional regulation around Blossom, where she felt a sense of calm, comfort, security and almost peace. Lessons started back up fairly quickly, Blossom was introduced to the herd, and Mackenzie started to make new friends.

Things were going great until they suddenly weren’t. Severe anxiety and ADHD reared their ugly heads again. Her days were once again filled with tears, irrational fears and complete dysregulation.

At one point it was so bad that Mackenzie wanted to end her life, she couldn’t see the way out from the veil of pain and the daily fight. The barn life was not immune from the downturn, lessons slowed down and eventually stopped because even they were too much. Kenzie struggled on an hourly basis to focus, fit in, keep it all together and basically figure out how to do much more than just breathing. Mackenzie’s nights were filled with lack of sleep, guilt over mistakes she had made, and lots of “what if” questions. It wasn’t until this season that we were informed of the severity and intensity of the anxiety and ADHD. Only this time, it was accompanied with a new diagnosis of a mental health disorder and a learning disability.

It is so strong in her that it literally alters her ability to regulate her body temperature, causing her to get overheated or freezing cold very quickly. Until a medical explanation was shared, this random phenomenon had been dismissed. As nothing else seemed to be working, we reluctantly turned to medication to help Mackenzie. It took a bit of time, but we eventually realized that providing medication to a child that truly needs the help is a form of support that allows them to get back to being the best version of themselves possible. Ignoring the cry for help is like having a broken bone without any pain medicine or a cast.

Winter was almost past, and spring was just emerging. Mackenzie started to find herself again and longed to reconnect with her sweet Blossom. School and daily life still held some big challenges, but we were getting there. By the time school ended in May, Mackenzie was back to riding Blossom two times a week and wanting to bring her treats, buy her tutus and just be near her all the times. Lessons started up again, and Mackenzie started to show in the local schooling

circuit for classical dressage. We adjusted some things in her training program and provided more grace in terms of timing. Mackenzie learned more about her brain and ways to help regulate herself, both physically and emotionally. She responded well, and the dynamic duo of Blossom and Mackenzie were back in action. It was truly amazing to see.

Then one day, Blossom didn’t want to come out of the field, she didn’t want to ride, and she found it hard to collect into a canter. The vet, chiropractor and farrier all said she was in perfect condition and OK to ride. We continued but were more mindful of Blossom. She had turned a bold 27 in March and hadn’t slowed down even a step until the preceding September. By the last show of the season, in November 2018, it was obvious that Blossom was done. Even though physically she was capable of continuing to ride, she was telling us that she was tired. Blossom had more than earned her retirement and deserved the life of luxury. Her training, show circuit, and intense rides all came to a halt that November.

Mackenzie knew it was the best thing for her horse and made that a priority but also felt the weight of that decision. She tearfully told Blossom “thank you” and explained that she will still be her favorite horse, even if they’re not training together anymore.

Blossom took the winter off and then started getting antsy at the gate when we pulled other horses out. We found that although she didn’t want heavy work anymore, she still loves children and having a purpose. Blossom now proudly carries around beginning riders and takes good care of them, just like she did for Mackenzie years ago. She gets extra snacks, loves and grooming two or three days a week this way, and she has a purpose, gets to be around children and still enjoys being mostly retired. Mackenzie and Blossom take joy strolls every so often, they still have long talks while grazing, and her stall remains a place of peace and comfort.

Although it was tough to ride another horse at first, Mackenzie started in the spring of 2019 riding classical dressage on “Rosie.” As a way to try something new and change things up, Mackenzie tried out Western Dressage for a few lessons. She ended up loving Western Dressage and hasn’t stopped riding since.

Kenzie is doing excellent this year with handling big emotions, maintaining focus, receiving instruction, facing scary things with a brave spirit and being able to communicate her needs appropriately, with words and not meltdowns. She still has her days and will always have ups and downs with mental and emotional health, but as long as she is riding, she has something bigger and more important to focus her energies toward. Riding horses isn’t just for fun, it’s not to be cool among her friends, it is her lifeline in the toughest of moments and her therapy when it’s time to push forward. It’s hard to say who saved who, but I’m fairly certain that Blossom gave Mackenzie a reason to fight and breathe again.

You will be able to see Mackenzie and Precious Desert Rose compete in the 2019 WDAA World Show in Oklahoma in October! Kenzie has a great way of focusing and really strutting her stuff when she enters the show ring. She found a great partner in Rosie, who will be making her third trip to the WDAA World Show this year.

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