Hilton Head’s Hawk the horse helped those in need soar

Hawk’s rider squeezed him just a bit too hard.

The horse broke into a canter.

As the animal quickened its gait in the indoor arena, a few folks leaned against the chest-high fence and watched. They heard the faint echoes of a trainer’s instructions to a rider. They saw Rashawn Young smile.

Young, atop Hawk, had never cantered before. And on this day, he wasn’t supposed to. The Hilton Head Island native, now 25, had been riding for over a decade in April 2011. A couple of months later he’d head to Athens, Greece, to compete in the Special Olympic World Summer Games.

Hawk would not go with him.

The animal worked for Heroes on Horseback, the Bluffton-based nonprofit that helps special-needs children and adults through equine-assisted therapy. Hawk retired in January after a decade of working as a therapy horse, the organization’s executive director, Bob Lee, said Thursday.

Today you might find the 20-year-old, bay-colored horse grazing in the pasture off of Honey Horn Drive, near Hilton Head’s Coastal Discovery Museum. But in 2011 he was just halfway through a career that saw him serve about 2,000 special-needs riders in Beaufort County.

Back in the arena on that April day, Hawk’s hoofs churned up the dirt. Laura Kinsey, equestrian director of Heroes on Horseback, looked on and shouted instructions to Young.

“Sit up straight” Kinsey said Thursday, recounting how she coached Young. “Hold on.”

“You might want to bring him back to the trot.”

Young, she said, continued to smile.

“He didn’t realize he was maybe squeezing (with his legs) a little too hard to ask (Hawk) to trot,” Kinsey said.

Hawk is a quarter horse, bred to run short distances — a quarter mile on a track. His former owner, Sherri Cooney, remembers a young horse who would “just run away” with her. She’d heard tales of a previous owner with a boy who liked to ride Hawk bareback. Hawk would sometimes buck off the boy. When the boy would try to catch and remount him, Hawk would play hard to get.

But Cooney worked with Hawk. She rode him bareback in the field. She trusted him.

As she began riding more, she decided she wanted to show and jump.

“It just wasn’t his thing,” Cooney said Friday. Reluctantly, she parted with the horse.

Heroes on Horseback bought Hawk for $3,000 with help from a grant from Hilton Head’s The Bargain Box. The horse was a popular addition to the organization’s programs, which help people from 3 to 80 years old develop skills such as hand-eye coordination, balance and communication through riding and working with horses.

Lee recalls how a busload of autistic children would scream “HAWK!” when they pulled up to the pasture and spotted the horse. Before working with Hawk, some of those children wouldn’t speak. After working with Hawk, they’d go home and talk to their parents. Mothers would cry when they heard their children say “mom” for the first time.

Hawk helped a Marine Corps fighter pilot rehabilitate after a crash.

He was named “horse of the year” for Region 3 by the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International in 2010. And a year later he was in the arena helping Young prepare for the Olympics.

Back in the arena, Young held onto the cantering horse and listened to Kinsey’s coaching.

He sat back. Relaxed. Slowed the horse down.

Brought Hawk back to a trot.

“I accomplished what I didn’t know,” Young said Thursday of his accidental, successful, canter.

“Yeah, it was a great accomplishment, for him and for me,” Kinsey said. “Just to see him be able to take off like that.”

“And not fall off,” Young said.

“You weren’t anywhere near falling off,” Kinsey said.

As rider and trainer told their story, Hawk stood between them. Moments earlier he’d been plodding around the pasture off Honey Horn Drive, avoiding his trainers’ attempts to bring him in —enjoying his retirement, they joked.

Now, rider and trainer stroked Hawk’s face.

Young held the horse’s reins.

And the silver and bronze medals he won at the 2011 World Summer Games.

Wade Livingston: 843-706-8153, @WadeGLivingston