On the hottest day of April I find myself on a white horse named Cinderella, riding through a field of tall grass and wildflowers.
Half a dozen of my grandchildren are on this trail ride, while their siblings and cousins are taking lessons in the corral or racing over unplowed territory in a horse and buggy. Where exactly are we? Not far from the city of Ramle.
The location, right in the center of Israel and therefore convenient for everyone, is the reason I give my scattered offspring for choosing this meeting place for a family outing at a horseback-riding ranch called Open Space. But it’s not the only reason. Months earlier I first heard about Open Space at a dance performance for three-year-olds in Modi’in.
The dance teacher, who goes by the inspired named of Sharon Kisharon (Sharon Talent), has a magical way of making each tiny-tot dancer feel special.
She shared her background, how she’d studied classical ballet in a Communist regime but dreamed of creating dance classes where children felt good about themselves.
Kisharon mentioned another project she was involved in, a horse ranch; she spoke of it with such awe that I decided on the spot to bring there my entire family for a ride. Sight unseen, I make arrangements for the 25 of us who could come.
After a brief orientation, we get on our horses and hit the trail. The grandkids are new at this, but I grew up in rural Connecticut and can ride and talk at the same time. Dr. Ofer Komarovski, the founder of Open Space, is leading our group. I have a chance to hear how he is turning his personal dream into reality.
Komarovski, 58, was born in Tel Aviv, not exactly a horseback town. His father owned an almond farm in the South, where nine-year-old Ofer rode a donkey and gathered wagons full of fresh nuts. When they moved to Ramat Efal, today part of Ramat Gan, he found horses at Moshav Kfar Azar next door.
The riding served him well; in top physical shape and self-confident, he was accepted into the IDF’s elite General Staff Reconnaissance Unit, where he later served as an officer. Of course, he wanted to be a veterinarian when he grew up. He leapt beyond the hurdle of getting into Israel’s single vet school, and when he graduated he specialized in horses, of course. He established a thriving and lucrative practice, and taught his own four children to ride and jump.
Still, it wasn’t enough. A Hebrew children’s book he read his kids about a disgruntled giant helped him define what was missing: He wanted to hear the sound of more children laughing in his front yard. He loved horses, but he loved kids even more.
Dr. Komarovski wanted to use horsepower to bring out the best in children, healthy ones like his own, but even more so kids with low self-esteem, kids with learning problems and social problems, kids who had suffered from cancer, accidents, trauma. He was concerned about at-risk teens struggling through adolescence, and particularly immigrant kids having a hard time adjusting to Israel.
One of those kids, now a young man of 21, is riding with us today, helping my grandchildren. At first his parents and the other Ethiopian parents whose teens were living in Youth Aliya villages objected to the horses, which were associated with peasants in Ethiopia; now that they lived in Israel, they didn’t want their children stereotyped. Dr. Komarovski eventually convinced the parents that horseback riding was a sport of the privileged classes in Israel, even a status symbol.
Just about all the instructors and counselors we meet in Open Space have overcome challenges of some sort. The young man driving our own preschoolers in a wagon around the farm has a paralyzed arm (“He’s a superb rider,” notes Dr. Komarovski), and a young woman running the petting area can’t make eye contact. As the inviting grandparent responsible for all these children, I’m admittedly uneasy about this.
Dr. Komarovski assures me that all of his staff members have passed rigorous training courses and are qualified instructors. They’ve trained with him and passed the instructors’ course; they’re more empathetic than the average equestrian instructor. The children are having such a good time that I relax.
Therapeutic riding in Israel was started in 1985 by Anita Shkedi, a British nurse and riding instructor. “She is our pioneer,” says Dr. Komarovski; since then, it’s expanded under the loving care of good people like him. There are now some 30 centers in our small country.
“We’re not a leading country as far as horses go, of course, but we are a world leader in equine therapy,” he says. “Israeli parents are eager to see their kids develop and are willing to go out of the way to do what they can.
Riding teaches coordination and gives confidence and self-esteem, whether your child needs therapy or not. Everyone benefits from the therapeutic side and the fun.”
Helping autistic kids is the Open Space specialty. “I didn’t even know what the autism spectrum was, but when I met the first group of autistic kids,” he recounts, “I felt a special connection – bingo! I knew I could communicate with them and help them with the horses.”
On the ranch, there’s a course for autistic kids to learn how to use keyboards to communicate, in addition to the horseback riding. Each child has a personal mentor. Dr. Komarovski has found some of his most effective and sensitive mentors among young people with other disabilities.
The children with cognitive, emotional and physical challenges ride and learn alongside children who don’t face these challenges – those, who like Dr. Komarovski himself, will go on to elite IDF units and university programs. Riders include the religious and secular, Arabs and Jews, kindergarten children and hi-tech executives.
Komarovski’s favorite word is hibur
, connection or connectedness. He wants to imbue a feeling of freedom and respect.
“We don’t just recognize ‘the other,’ but build a social group. Even if you are behind in school or come from a tough background, you can be a skilled reader and a talented teacher.”
That might sound like talk, but the ranch seems to cast its spell over my family. Even the first-timers seem to make remarkable progress in the corral.
I look up and see two five-year-olds riding backwards and standing on the saddle like circus performers. When the children aren’t riding, they’re swinging on Tarzan ropes, washing horses, visiting newborn goats and petting rabbits.
We’ve planned to stay three hours, but stay six. We’ve come for fun, but we’ve had more – an empowering spiritual experience.
Which syncs with something Dr. Komarovski says, “Some express themselves through synagogue prayer, but I guess you might call what we’re trying to do in Open Space our way of serving God.” The author is a Jerusalem writer who focuses on the wondrous stories of modern Israel. She serves as the Israel director of public relations for Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. The views in her columns are her own.