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The recent closing of the Shalvat Nor riding academy leaves holes in the hearts of many people in the Beersheba-Metar area, not just the owners. Karen Nusi, a single Jewish mother from Long Island, and Yasser El Na'ami, a Beduin from Hura - the business partners who built the academy with little more than hard work and a dream - feel the pain. But so do the children they worked with, many of whom suffer from hyperactivity or attention deficit disorder.
Shalvat Nor (Hebrew for "tranquility of light") was named for the owners' children. "My daughter, Shalva, was six when we started, and Yasser's oldest daughter, Nor, was 10," explains Nusi. "'Tranquility of light' expressed our philosophy. Jews and Arabs are both here under the same sun. We need to find a way to live together."
In everything it did, Shalvat Nor was a bicultural manifesto. The partners and all their children worked together, feeding the horses, exercising and cleaning, and helping with the riding lessons. Nusi lives in Metar, but the riding circle was built next to the El Na'ami family home in neighboring Hura, one of the recognized Beduin villages.
During Shalvat Nor's two-plus years of existence, the owners split the work. El Na'ami preferred the physical labor, leaving the talking to his Anglo partner. Nusi, a thoroughly Western equestrienne in jeans and a ponytail, was a striking contrast to her burka-clad Beduin counterparts. But trust and respect flowed in both directions.
"We had a few cultural misunderstandings," Nusi laughs. "It usually came about because I'm a doer who can't sit still. I'd sometimes act without thinking. When there was conflict, we'd sit down and talk. It wasn't always easy."
Nusi's inability to sit still introduced her to horses in the first place. "I was only a little over two when my parents put me on a horse. I had so much extra energy, so much going on in my mind, that I couldn't stay in one place. But if they put me on a horse, at least they knew where I was. Then they noticed something else: Whenever I was around horses, I was happy," she recalls.
Nusi made aliya in 1990 from Long Island, by way of California. "I'm an English teacher by profession, but horses have always been my passion. Therapeutic riding instruction is a recognized profession in the States, and I hoped to do something like that here. I began teaching English because I also love teaching, but all my spare time was spent with horse people. When I began teaching in the Beduin community, the idea for the riding academy was born."
Although she'd worked at several stables in Israel, Nusi longed for a place of her own. "I'm very particular about the way horses are treated," she says. "I couldn't work anywhere the horses weren't cared for. And then I met Yasser, who had the same standards I did."
El Na'ami shares her passion for horses. "Yasser rode horses, kept them, and we became very good friends - more like family. We dreamed about having a real stable, a riding academy where we could teach riding and introduce people to the pleasures of horseback riding. Finally, when Yasser's home in Hura was built, we decided we could do it. Yasser built the riding circle, and we built stalls and set up office in a caravan. People started coming."
Ultimately, however, the uniqueness of the ownership - a single Jewish woman and a Beduin man - was partly responsible for its demise. "There was some local resentment," Nusi says. "How much, I don't know. I was focused on what we were doing, not on what people were thinking."
The final straw was death by bureaucracy.
"No matter what we did, we couldn't wring a business license out of the city," Nusi says. "They stalled and wouldn't answer our questions - and all the while we were paying out cash, unable to advertise or really get going. Last winter came, it was cold and rainy and we couldn't work. We hung on until July but then decided to pull the plug. The expenses were eating us up."
Nusi still thinks about the children she taught to ride. Shalvat Nor's therapeutic riding philosophy came from Wyatt Webb's book It's Not about the Horse. Webb, a former alcoholic and drug addict whose rehabilitation came through his love for horses, had a catch phrase: "Life's troubles aren't about the horse, they're about you," which became a mantra at Shalvat Nor.
Webb's philosophy was applicable to attention-deficit kids. "Parents brought me hyperactive children who couldn't focus. Being hyperactive is an advantage: If a child can be involved with many things all at once, that's good, not bad. You have to learn to control it - that's where the horse comes in."
There's a special relationship between horses and humans, says Nusi. "Horses reflect you, what you are feeling. If you're scared or angry when you approach a horse, they'll feel it and reflect it back to you. If you're soothing, with an easy manner, they'll mirror that - that's why using horses in therapy makes perfect sense: You connect with this huge, powerful animal physically and emotionally. You see yourself reflected in it. So the key is, in order to control the horse, you have to first control yourself."
Self-confidence is another benefit. If you're a 22-kilo eight-year-old, learning to control 1,100 kilos of horse builds strength and confidence.
"We had some great successes, and with others we were making progress. But what could we do? We couldn't go on depriving our own families," laments Nusi.
Selling her horses was one of the hardest things she ever did, she says. "We advertised. Lots of people came, but I was worried about where they'd go and how they'd be treated. Then we met a man who was starting a riding school. He started by taking the horses on trial for a month. It's working out. We've visited them, and the horses look marvelous. He tells me that they're better trained than his other horses. They listen better, he says. So we maintain contact, but it's still very hard."
Nusi says that Mansura El Na'ami, Yasser's wife, helped put things in perspective. "'You didn't fail,' she tells me. 'We all benefited.' The kids are at the top of their Hebrew classes, and they have the most confidence of anyone in their class. Nor, who worked so hard in the stables, is still beaming. Shalva is doing well. And me? I'm a better person, too. I'm stronger. I'm a better English teacher - much more creative and relaxed," says Nusi.
Will she try again?
"A month after we sold the horses, [American actor] William Shatner arrived in Israel to establish 30 therapeutic riding centers across the country. Friends called, urging me to apply to join that program. But I can't. It's too soon. Maybe later, when Shalva is a little older."
For Nusi, the memories are a blessing.
"I remember how I'd work hard all day, then rush home to ride. I was really happy. I'd be running in the dirt, sweating, eating sand, and the only thing I could think of was how happy I was. I was smiling all the time. Maybe some day we'll try again."