Last week, for the first time, I met Dolores and Cali, and my life, the possibilities in it, changed.
There is so much I could say, and maybe one day, I'll write a book, or, if that turns out to be too daunting, perhaps something shorter, about the experience. This was only the first meeting, and hopefully, Dolores and Cali will be back in February, bringing with them more excitement, possibilities, and yes, even stress.
When Dolores got Cali out of the trailer for the first time and I was able to put my hands on her, to "see" her for myself, the joy of it was immeasurable. I wanted to hug Dolores, to hug Cali, to stand there and just revel in the whole idea that this little living creature would open up my world. At that point, I knew theoretically that Cali would show me things I didn't know, would take me places I wouldn't dare try to go on my own. I say I knew this theoretically, but even then, standing there with Dolores and Cali those first few minutes, I didn't truly understand it.
Dolores and I took Cali for a short walk around the block, a walk in which she held one leash on Cali's left and I held onto the other leash and the harness on Cali's right. Even so, I was walking with her! I was so excited and had to be reminded to slow down. "Take a deep breath," I told myself. "You can do this." And I did. At first, Cali trit-trotted along faster than I was comfortable with. Usually, when I'm confident about where I'm going, I walk at a brisk pace, but because I was nervous and had never walked with a guide animal, let alone a mini, going slowly seemed the more prudent choice.
And when Cali understood that I needed her to slow down, there was a moment between us, as if we knew each other, and without pressure on the leash or words, we communicated. She slowed for me. C/t, Cali!
Which brings me to clicking and treating. There's a real knack to it, one which I can't claim I've gotten quite yet. I wanted to click and give the treat quickly, but I kept forgetting to stop first by letting the harness handle go, then reaching for the treat _after I clicked. Dolores finally told me that I couldn't expect to do everything right the first time. What I really wanted to say was, "Why not?" But, again, I tried to be prudent and reminded myself that she was right, after all. I'd get it in time. Meanwhile, she was there to help see that I got it through my thick head.
That day flew by like a blur, with Cali coming to work with me, standing beside my chair while I pretended to get work done. The office door was closed and her leash was off, so she was able to move around the office at will. I clicked and treated when she came to stand quietly next to me and then when she stood quietly for a minute or two.
The next day, Dolores and Cali met me at work, and again, Cali had to stand quietly in the office. Again, I pretended I was getting work done.
In the afternoon, Cali, Dolores, and I went for a walk, and that was when I really understood what Cali may someday become for me. She was pretty excited to go for her walk, and I had a hard time getting the harness on, but eventually, it was on and we were off. The happy sound of her hooves clicking on the pavement gave me a little thrill. She kept the perfect pace for me, and we walked around the block first.
At first, I thought it would be a good idea to walk next to the curb. Well, it might have been a good idea had I been somewhere else, but as there were so many obstacles in the form of planters, posts, and things I can't even remember, we decided that walking close to the buildings would be a better option.
But what was really exciting was that Cali showed me things I'd never seen before. For instance, I didn't know about the posts or the planters or the driveways we came across. Sighted people don't tell you about these things when you're walking along, mainly because they're not important at that particular moment. They may not be essential, but imagine! Cali showed me things that I didn't know existed. She'll show me trash cans or fire hydrants or mail boxes—anything that is on our path and that she thinks I'll find interesting. That is more amazing than I can say, and definitely more than I'd expected. That's when I truly understood what Cali could bring into my life.
When we came back around to the building where I work, Cali pointed out the front door even though she had never walked through that door to get into the building. We always went in through the back, yet she knew! How thrilling! C/t. Go Cali!
Our walk took us to MacDonald's, where she stopped to show me the flagpole. It wasn't on our path, but because I'd been here before and heard the flag waving in the breeze, I knew why she'd stopped. Dolores told me to always assume that Cali had stopped for a good reason, at least in the beginning, and even though it was hard, I did. Sometimes, Cali stopped, and I couldn't figure out why. It would turn out to be an obstacle to my right, a crack in the sidewalk, a wide driveway, a terrain change, or something else that she thought I might find interesting. C/t.
Then Cali stopped, and neither Dolores nor I could figure out why. I thought of asking Cali to go on, but it was clear she was a bit nervous. So I didn't push her. Instead, Dolores and I waited for something to happen. Apparently, there was a man some ways off. I don't know if he looked shady or if he was even looked at us, but Cali didn't like it. We had passed other people and Cali hadn't reacted that way, so I c/t'd, and after a bit, we continued. Who says horses can't be protective?
Which brings me to people and their reactions to Cali. All along, as we'd been walking, people would stop their cars and stare. I could hear them stop, and often, they'd yell, "I thought that was a dog. Is that really a horse?" Or, "Is that a guide pony?" I mostly didn't respond because I was concentrating so hard on where we were going and what Cali was trying to show me. Thank God for Dolores, who answered the questions and allowed me to focus. One person asked if she could pet Cali, and again, Dolores came to my rescue and explained that no, Cali couldn't be petted because she was working. I had been about to say yes. At one point, Cali decided we were passing a particularly delectable stretch of grass, and she needed to have a little snack. Dolores told me to pick up her head by applying a bit of pressure to the leash and turning her nose toward me, and at first, I thought, I can't do this. She's too strong. But I got her head up, and we continued. She stopped several more times, insisting that this was perfectly good grass and shouldn't go to waste. After a while, I felt when her nose was turning and automatically turned her head back so that she was facing straight ahead. Finally, she remembered herself and her guide work, and on we went.
When we returned to my building, Cali found the door, and as we'd been working on "find the handle," she found thatas well, and in we went. C/t for an awesome walk, Cali and Dolores!
For a while longer, Cali stayed in the office with me, "chilling". There was one moment when I wished someone had had a camera, because Cali put her head on the arm of my chair and stayed like that for a bit. But alas! There's never a camera around at the perfect moment! As a matter of fact, my boss, who had to take pictures because people he knew insisted on seeing photos of Cali, claims that Cali isn't very good at picture-taking. As soon as he's ready to take the perfect shot, Cali looks away or puts her head down. He even claimed I'd done that as well!
Dolores and Cali left a bit later as it looked like the weather was going to get pretty bad, and I was left to really get some work done and then go home. The visit had been the most incredible thing I'd ever experienced, and it had been exhausting as well. I wished Cali and Dolores could stay, but I knew that I had to take some time out to recuperate. It had been stressful to learn how to interact with Cali, how to put the harness on, to take it off of a prancing, excited horse, to keep hold of the leash and take off the harness. I wouldn't have traded it for the world, though. I am eagerly awaiting the day when Cali and I will become partners and will travel to places neither of us would have alone. My world is now a place I never dreamed, one I never dared hope for; it is now a world full of hope and possibilities and opportunities. It is a world where the words "I can" are once more a part of my vocabulary. With the help of Dolores and Cali, I am now beginning to find my way.