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The following is an excerpt from the book, Horse Tales for the Soul, Volume 7 in the series. This volume brings together more than 40 true, heartwarming, life affirming stories from horsemen around the globe. Enjoy! To order your copy today, visit or visit Audio books are also available.

Never Look a Draft Horse in the Mouth
Written by: Deb Lewin

While driving in February, 1996, I was broadsided by another vehicle. I refer to this time as “My Opportunity.” After many surgeries and over a year of rehabilitation, I was told that I had reached MMI—Maximum Medical Improvement. That meant being propped up in a wheelchair with a neck brace, arm brace, back brace and leg brace after someone had showered me, washed my hair, dressed me and fed me. I have a brain injury with left side paralysis, impaired vision and hearing and a host of other neurological and physical deficits. I had gone from being an independent woman and international able-bodied athlete to a woman needing assistance 24/7.

Horse Tales for the Soul - Deb Lewin

About 18 months after “My Opportunity,” a friend came over and told me that she had heard about the values of therapeutic riding and gave me a gift of 10 lessons at EQUEST Therapeutic Horsemanship in Wylie, Texas. Of course I was excited—one day a week out of the house! Yet, I really could not imagine how a horse could help me feel any better and improve my situation, so again I returned to the pleasing thought of being out of the house one day a week. My family and friends set up a roster and took time off work to transport me to EQUEST. Having never ridden a horse before, my first visit to EQUEST was both fearful and exciting—an interesting polarity of emotions in my mind and body.

After several months of therapeutic riding on different EQUEST horses, my physical, emotional and mental state had improved dramatically. I had graduated from needing three volunteers with me at all times while on the horse, to being independent in the arena. These changes had also allowed me to become more independent in my everyday living. I was beginning to live life again.

Prior to living in America, I had represented two countries in two different sports as an able-bodied athlete. On hearing about this, my coach from EQUEST, Gail Pace, jumped on the idea of getting me back as a competitive athlete in the discipline of dressage. She lit the fire in my belly and used my prior athletic accomplishments to get me motivated and back in touch with my athletic spirit. When I started learning about riding horses, and especially the art of dressage, I was intrigued and totally amazed by the subtle cues used to get the horse to perform. How could this huge animal be so receptive to a little shift in weight, to the turning of my head, to the tilt of my hips? That question was quickly answered with, “If they can feel a little fly on their back, they can certainly feel you shift your weight or hold your breath!”

Horse Tales for the Soul - Deb Lewin

At this time in the U.S., dressage was the only major competition available to equestrians with disabilities, and being the competitive person that I am, I was looking forward to the challenge. Gail started me on this wonderful journey of learning dressage and took me to compete in several A-level shows around the country, all on borrowed horses. I was now competing to get qualifying scores to be ranked in the U.S. The top 10 riders in the country were then invited to compete in the Paralympic Selection Trials for a spot on the Paralympic Team.

I remember one particular dressage show we attended in California in 2001. Although ParaEquestrians can now compete on their own horses, it was not like that then. All riders were on borrowed horses.

We arrived at the barn and I had been matched up with two possible mounts, both Arabians. Gail rode the horses first to assess their responses to my adaptive equipment. One was a definite “no,” and the other horse became a “no” after I rode him for a very short time, as there were some safety issues involved. I was so disappointed that we had traveled all the way from Texas to compete in this huge qualifying show and I was horseless. The next afternoon, less than a day before we started competition, a trailer pulled up and out walked the largest horse I had ever seen. A stranger had heard about my situation and offered me their horse on which to compete. Major, a 16-plus-hand Belgian draft horse weighing in at over 1,800 pounds, was trained in the equestrian discipline of vaulting, and not dressage. This boy was gigantic and definitely named after his stature. Again, Gail tacked up and mounted Major to see his response to my adaptive equipment. Then it was time for me to get in the saddle. Oh, my wordy! Being only five feet tall and weighing about 105 pounds, I know I looked like a peanut on a mountain. Nevertheless, I felt blessed that I had a horse to ride and this was certainly going to be a competition I would never forget.

I got to practice on Major for less than an hour before returning to our hotel to clean my tack and shine my saddle and boots. Just before going to sleep, I did what I do every night—visualize how the following day would unravel. I visualized my dressage test and suddenly started laughing out loud. I could picture Major and me doing many of the required moves on the test—walk, trot, 20-metre circles—and yet when it came to visualizing the ten-metre circles with this 12-metre horse, all I could think about was, where does his head go? I fell asleep with a smile on my face and the knowledge in my heart that we would compete and have fun. Saturday morning, up early and wearing our dressage bests, we headed for the barn. I rode three different dressage tests that day in a 40-by-20-metre arena, and even though I could not do much of an extended trot with this huge horse in such a small space, or conform his neck to look like a dressage horse, his geometry and rhythm were perfect. And the best part, each time I had to do a ten-metre circle, I would start laughing again. Major was one of the greatest horses I had ever ridden, with a heart bigger than himself.

Between the tests, my fellow competitors told me that at least I had not wasted a trip to California; at least I got to compete, even if it was on a draft horse— insinuating that I would never get the required scores to qualify for the Paralympic Selection Trials. At the end of the day, when all the scores were posted, I got three qualifying scores and received the High Point Award for the day. Oh, what a glorious day that was—and a fabulous reminder to “Never Look a Draft Horse in the Mouth!”
Deb Lewin

Biography: Deb Lewin, born and raised in Africa, in a country called Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia) has lived in several countries before becoming a US Citizen in 1992. Prior to her “Opportunity” she was a videographer and video editor, a paramedic, an NLP master practitioner and ropes challenge course instructor.

After her “Opportunity,” riding became a huge part of her recovery and even though she continues to compete, still on borrowed horses, she spends most of her time as a motivational speaker and ardent advocate for EQUEST and the miraculous benefits of therapeutic riding. Deb qualified for the Paralympic Trials twice, has competed on Team USA in International Dressage competition, has national equitation championship titles and several annual high point awards from the AQHA. Deb has served on the Board of Directors for EQUEST and the NARHA Equestrian Committee. Deb has been a contributing author to several of Bonnie’s horse and dog books and recently published her first book: One Brain Injury will Change Your Mind! Deb encourages everyone she meets to “RideStrong Through Life’s Journey!” Please visit her website or contact her at

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