ryoko nakamuraBy RYOKO NAKAMURA

This is my 11th year with The Rafu. Many of the English readers may not know me because I write mostly in Japanese and publish only ten or so stories in English a year.

Ever since my first year at The Rafu in 2003, I’ve been looking forward to the year 2014, the Year of the Horse.

Born and raised in Yokohama, a big city southwest of Tokyo, stables and horses were never accessible to me. But for as long as I can remember, I was fascinated with horses for some reason.

When I was a child, I had to ask my dad — who doesn’t gamble — to take me to a nearby racetrack to see these beautiful creatures. Unwanted betting slips, newspapers, and trash were everywhere at the racetrack. Surrounded by middle-aged men, each one with a red pen tucked behind his ear, holding a racing form, a cup of sake, and a cigarette, I was always the only little girl at the paddock.

Although most racetracks in Japan have since been transformed into date-night destinations and family-friendly places with good restaurants and play areas for kids, as I recall, they were different back then. There were people indulging in gambling and probably some Yakuzas hanging around as well.

That still didn’t suppress my desire to go there to see beautiful, well-maintained horses. My dad later told me that he really didn’t want to go but did it to make me happy.

We encountered a few funny, drunk old men. One day, an old man with grey hair came up to me and said, “Hey little lady, what do you know about horses?” I said, “Nothing. I just love seeing them. They are beautiful.”

The man smiled and said, “OK. Which horse do you think is the most beautiful?” I pointed to one horse that was walking like a beauty queen. “Good choice! I’ll take your advice,” the man said as he went into a betting booth.

Incidentally, the horse finished first. The man looked at me as he raised his sake cup and exclaimed, “Kanpai (cheers).” As a child, I didn’t know much about gambling or horse racing and, frankly, I still don’t, but I remember that I was pretty happy to be able to “help” this stranger.

My love for horses didn’t stop there. As I got older, I rode horses whenever I had a chance. When I was a teenager, I even traveled to Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan, a well-known horse-breeding region, where I stayed at a stable and helped with daily duties, like feeding the horses and cleaning their stables.

When Rafu’s Japanese editorial staff had a meeting about the New Year’s issue last October, I knew exactly what I was going to cover. I had been waiting for this opportunity for the last ten years. I wanted to celebrate and honor the amazing abilities that horses have. So I drove down to San Juan Capistrano in Orange County.

Surrounded by beautiful mountains and trails, the city is a renowned equestrian destination. Many stables give various riding lessons, but what the Shea Center offers is unique, touching, and valuable.

Founded in 1978 by a couple whose son was born with cerebral palsy, the Shea Center offers therapeutic riding for people with disabilities. There, I met Nicole Matsushita, an 11-year-old with a very rare disorder called Chromosome 7q deletion, who rides at Shea Center every week.

Nicole lives with hearing loss, a speech disability, intellectual disabilities, and developmental delays. Her parents, Vincent and Yukiyo, revealed in an interview with me that they despaired of Nicole’s future.

Nicole never had a weekend soccer practice, a movie night with friends, or a sleepover party. Day after day, her schedule was packed with therapy appointments of all sorts — from occupational to speech to physical. She didn’t have anything to look forward to in her life until she started taking therapeutic riding sessions.

Thanks to the benefits of the horseback riding therapy and interaction with these sensitive, intelligent animals, Nicole’s balance, communication skills, and self-esteem all improved. And most importantly, she has found a friend she cares for.

Every time I ride a horse, I feel a sense of freedom, security, and affinity. The world looks different when I’m on horseback. The horse’s body heat comforts me. And the sounds of the horse’s breathing and hoof beats remind me of our trusting relationship. Big yet gentle, horses communicate with me, and we understand each other through the reins.

I learned a lot about therapeutic riding and made new discoveries through this assignment, but nothing surprised me. Ever since I was a little kid at the paddock, I somehow recognized horses’ incredible abilities.

I saw Nicole after a recent therapy session, giving her horse carrots. She had the biggest smile on her face. You don’t need experts to tell you therapeutic riding works. Nicole’s beautiful smile is evidence enough, proving everything horses can do for us.

Ryoko Nakamura is a reporter for the Japanese section of The Rafu Shimpo and can be contacted at Rnakamura@rafu.com. Ochazuke is a staff-written column. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

Nicole enjoys feeding her horse carrots that she cut before the session.
At the Shea Center, Nicole Matsushita enjoys feeding her horse carrots that she cut before the session. (RYOKO NAKAMURA/Rafu Shimpo)

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  1. beautiful story, well written and a heart-warmer! .. Good luck to Nicole – her smiling eyes says it all.