By Diana Pikulski
Henry Ford once said: “My best friend is the one who brings out the best in me.”
For Andrew Byrd, an 11-year-old from Port St Lucie, FL, his first best friend was a horse named Bridger who came into his life two years ago. Andrew rode Bridger every week at Holly Creek STAR Hippotherapy Center. They rode at a walk and Andrew told Bridger all of his dreams and secrets. When Andrew’s parents had to tell him of Bridger’s sudden death, they knew he would be devastated.
Andrew, who is extremely kind and empathetic, suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome.
“He cried for Bridger every day for weeks,” says Georgia Byrd, Andrew’s adopted mother. “It wasn’t getting better. We didn’t know what to do because we never thought we would find another horse like Bridger who would be so kind and patient with Andrew.”
His sadness did not abate. After a few weeks, Andrew’s therapist had an idea. She brought the family to meet Katie Schmit at Florida TRAC.
Schmit knew they were looking for a hippotherapy horse that would spend most of his time walking or just being a buddy. She brought out Kitty Litter, a Florida-bred of 2004 by Catienus who ran 65 times in his five-year career and earned $51,628. Andrew rode Kitty and they immediately connected.
Georgia Byrd recalls: “After their ride, Andy came over to me and said, ‘I like him. And, I think he likes me.'”
The Byrds made the decision to adopt Kitty Litter on the spot.
“I felt Kitty Litter would be a good choice for Georgia’s family as he is so calm, self-assured and nonchalant,” recalls Schmit. “We saw, over the years, that the more time and attention we gave Kitty Litter, the more he tuned into us, listened and tried to please. So, I felt he would thrive in this special role.”
“He is kind and tries incredibly hard to do what is asked of him,” Schmit added. “There isn’t a mean or argumentative bone in his body.”
Kitty Litter has been renamed Panda Bear by Andrew, who is known by his family as Panda Boy. The entire family showers kindness, carrots and apples on Panda Bear, and all of the horses at the farm. Andrew’s sister Faith is also learning-disabled and has her own horse, an Arab named Gizmo.
“We thank God every day for Florida TRAC for giving Andy his best friend, Panda Bear,” said Georgia Byrd.
“The kids can be having a really rough day but the horses change everything,” explained their father Barry Byrd. “The kids become calm and content in their work. They love to be with their horses, groom them and generally care for them as well as ride.”
Andrew and his sister brush and tack their horses with help from their parents, who watch over the activities. Then, the siblings ride their horses all over the property which is entirely fenced in. Panda patiently ambles with Andrew and never offers to break from a walk.
While Andrew still fondly remembers Bridger, he says about his new horse Panda Bear: “He is my best buddy.”
Florida TRAC has adopted out hundreds of horses. Matches like Kitty Litter and Andrew Byrd are special because of the uniqueness of their bond.
“While we have placed several wonderful OTTBs as companions and therapy horses, as well as into upper level show barns, the majority of our horses are adopted by amateur pleasure riders, many of whom show at various levels in a wide variety of disciplines,” explained Schmit. “That’s the beauty of the OTTB; there isn’t much they aren’t good at.”
On making this match, Schmit says: “It’s the best feeling in the world. It’s a life-changing win for Andrew, and for Panda Bear, too. There is nothing more gratifying than seeing these horses find their purpose, as they thrive on having one as well as being appreciated and loved. Andrew deserved a very special horse and I am so happy Panda Bear found the special spot!”
“I know how much the horses I have had in my life have affected me,” added Schmit. “Seeing the team make a match like the one between Andrew and Panda feels like just a bit of my debt getting paid back for the happiness these animals have brought me in my life.”