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December 2006


Persian Sky, Auroville’s healing horse

- Priya Sundaravalli

“Looking at him now, you would not think much of him,” says Marianne as ‘Persian Sky', her horse, nibbles on a carrot. He is a picture of tranquillity, rolling up his upper lips and showing a set of horsey white teeth. “But you should see him at the Auroville horse show when Jerome takes him on the tent pegging course. Then you would realize what a thoroughbred he is.”

They make an unlikely pair – a little girl hardly 3 feet tall, pulling a half-ton beast behind her. There is an air of unrestrained delight about her as she stumbles along the sandy paddock pulling excitedly at the thoroughbred's reins. He follows docilely behind.

“Persian Sky” is his name, and the girl is Sarasu, a nine-year old deaf-mute child who attends Deepam, the day-care centre for physically and mentally challenged children in Auroville. Every fortnight, on a Friday afternoon, Persian along with his team of helpers at the Red Earth Riding School (RERS) in Brihaspathi, works with children from Deepam.

In this programme of equine therapeutics, children who have a wide spectrum of physical or mental disabilities, including cerebral palsy, autism, ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder), congenital deafness and/or mental retardation are assisted by the horse and his trainers.

Sarasu, the 9 year old deaf-mute child, waits her turn.Photo by Priya SundaravalliNow it is Sarasu's turn. She is on Persian's back now, balancing herself confidently and even standing upright for a brief moment. From the sidelines, her friends cheer at the display. She beams. Not all of them will get to ride Persian today, but it is a field trip and they appear content to just be there.

Marianne walks Persian first. Like a horse-whisperer, she speaks constantly to him, even ‘whispering' in his ear. His walk is stately; long deep strides, deliberate, and majestic. “This type of walking is very relaxing,” Marianne explains later. “And it is this that helps the children feel secure.”

How Persian Sky found his way into Auroville and got to Marianne and her partner Jerome is a strange tale. “He was a race horse,” says Marianne, “who was retired after a year on the competitive circuit.” Persian, she says, was too temperamental when it came to racing. “He will not do what he does not want to do. So in the races, if he wasn't in the mood, he would deliberately come last, or even get himself eliminated!”

Luckily for Persian he was not put down, as is the fate of some race horses. Instead Inge, an Aurovilian who loves to ride, brought him to Auroville. It was the year 2000. “He was six years old at that time,” says Marianne. “Later when Inge left Auroville, she passed him on to our care.”

For Marianne, there was an instant connection. “I knew at once that he was special, and I felt that he had been given to me,” she recalls. But the special role that Persian would play came to Marianne just 2 years ago. “I saw this book by an American who spoke about horses and their ability to work with children with disabilities.”

Marianne was riveted by the idea. “This was something I had always wanted to do, and I felt, Persian was the perfect horse for this kind of work.” She took a year off to study the system and prepare. Her intuition proved right. Persian seemed to have the right disposition for children with disabilities. “He seemed to have another side to his nature when it came to weak or disabled children.” Both Marianne and Jerome were struck by the patient and protective nature that emerged. And so began the unique programme of Equine Therapeutics where a prematurely retired race horse found his true calling: working with disabled children.

This is a work of the heart. A lot of communication happens in silence, through sign language. It is a work that takes attention and concentration from all – the child, Marianne, Persian and the other assistants. The children are completely ‘in the moment'; their eyes focussed upon Marianne as she gestures and motions. They mirror her actions sitting upon the horse. She leads them through a series of exercises – reaching up or out, she pushes them to their physical limits. “Just sitting on the horse and balancing oneself improves muscle tone,” explains Marianne. “And I take each child through a set of exercises.” As each child is different, Marianne subtly alters her instructions to match the needs and capacities of each.

Vikram walks Persian Sky as Marianne looks on. Photo by Priya Sundaravalli
For the past year, Marianne and her team of three run the programme: Jerome, Mahi, a returning Aurovilian who has just completed a B.A. in psychology from an American university, and Thiru, a young newcomer from Edaiyanchavadi who is currently in France . “Jerome and Thiru bring the masculine element into the programme,” explains Marianne. She explains how the young boys from Deepam “seem to lose their fear and become more confident” when the men are around.

None of the four including Marianne, receive a maintenance to do this work. “We are all volunteers, and all of us enjoy doing this. Actually there is no money; just enough to maintain Persian!”

Like many things in Auroville, money for the programme has been hard to come by. “When Persian was first given to us, we didn't have a paisa for his upkeep,” says Marianne with a smile. “But somehow in typical Auroville style, money always came through and usually at the very last moment!” The cost of taking care of a horse runs to about 4,000 rupees a month. Over the two years that Marianne has had Persian, she would work during the summer in Switzerland , “when it is too hot to ride here”, and save up money for running the programme for the rest of the year. “But now a very dear friend of 25 years, helps meet some of the basic expenses for keeping Persian, and that is a big relief.”

Four children have had their turn, and there is one more to go. This also happens to be one of the more difficult children. Suresh is spastic, and suffers from cerebral palsy. “A few months ago,” says Marianne, “Suresh had much less balance while standing and walking.” When his turn finally comes, Suresh rushes forward, limping with astonishing agility. His movements are jerky and uncoordinated, and his limp even more pronounced in his anticipation and excitement. But he is all smiles; a wide grin breaking from ear to ear.

Marianne realizes that a horse with Persian's background of racing (which is also a world of stress and steroid abuse) “has a life expectancy of sixteen years or so.” Persian is twelve, but this reality does not faze her. “No, I am not in a rush to look for another horse to take his place. Mother has always shown the way, and I have full trust in Her.” She softly adds, “Of course my ultimate dream is to have a stable of about 10 such horses in Auroville, all dedicated to this work with children. And there is such a need in this part of the world; but I am happy to take it one step at a time!”

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