One Last Ride

A Student’s Success Story

Written by Brittany Harward

The steps that lead back up from the riverbed on the trail was a rocky one. I looked up to see two boys moving back up the trail after we had to turn around. In the lead was John. (Note: John is not his real name. The students’ names have been changed to reflect their identity.) Two years ago, when I first met John, I doubted his confidence to lead himself, let alone two others. Now I watched John navigating the rocks and the steep trail ahead with ease, guiding his brother, along with me in tow.

John seemed like a natural leader. He pointed out where to lead the horses and how to best make it back up the trail-face safely. I kept thinking back to when I had started working at Oxbow Academy. John had been assigned as my client. Back then, John yearned for attention. He always desperately sought approval from those around him.

At that time, John often got himself in trouble for not following rules, lying, and dodging his responsibilities. But he also had a desire for others to think of him as a leader.

On the trail ride, it almost seemed surreal, thinking that this was the same young man. Now here we were on John’s final ride. We were on an expert wilderness trail in Zion National Park called Hop Valley Trail. He was close to graduating from the program, and he was leading us out of an unfortunate situation.

The day had started out well, the ride scenery was beautiful, and the two young men with our Equine Director, Tony North, and I were in absolute bliss being out on the trail with their equine companions. We started down a steep path following Tony’s lead, which was ultimately leading to an arch.

As we had been riding long enough to be at the halfway point or so, I heard the boys talking about how Chip, Tony’s faithful horse, had an injury. Chip was bleeding around his hoof. He had tripped on a piece of loose lava rock on the path and been injured.

We tried to move ahead, hoping the laceration would begin to clot, and we could continue onward. We reached as far as the bottom of the canyon before it became clear that we needed to turn around. Tony had decided to tend to Chip’s wound. That meant that Tony would need to walk up the path to give his horse an easier time.

Tony designated one of the other boys to guide his little brother and me safely back up the trail. With no hesitation, John responded that he would get to the top where the path seemed to level and wait for Tony and Chip to catch up.

We started back up the path. I watched as John relayed information about where to step, where we would rest, and check back to make sure that we both made it to the next landing. He led me out of an unfamiliar place, assessing for high-risk situations, and checking back on his team, ensuring we all made it back safely. I felt secure in John’s planning and direction. That was something that I couldn’t have said when I first met John two years before.

This was a reflection of his progress.

John didn’t complain about the situation forcing us to turn around. He was confident in his choices and showed concern for those in his care. He was ready to leave my direction and start leading others.

This wasn’t the only time during the day that he would need to be a lead for me. Near the end of the trail ride, my sweet pony, Annie, decided she was done moving. This happened a few times. Each time, Tony would send John back to get my sorry self back up to the group.

Upon reaching me, he would kindly ask for my lead rope and begin to pony me out. He didn’t do so mockingly or with frustration, just with concern to keep me included and safe. Once again, it was confirmation that he was ready to move forward. He wasn’t concerned with what others thought. He didn’t care about being perceived as a leader or gaining attention. It was just about keeping our trail group together.

I looked back on my memories with John and mentally charted his progress. He went from a young boy who struggled to be accepted, had difficulty being entirely accountable for how his choices affected others and avoided necessary work. On his last ride, I witnessed him confidently making choices. John was content in relationships, secure in his thoughts of himself, and ready to get on with his life.