top of page



It’s hard to remember how long I’ve been volunteering at EquiCenter. Before I started volunteering, I hadn’t been around horses for 40 years as the last time I rode my horse I was riding decided to run the last half mile back to the barn without me, leaving me face first in the mud. So when I began at EquiCenter, I never felt the need to be anything more than a side walker. In fact, I loved side walking. It gave me the opportunity to walk right beside a horse with a child up top and if that child started to slip, I was there to help. That was my job. What I did not know then, was how that child would make me feel when I looked up and saw the smile on his or her face. My extra bonus would come as I glanced over to the parents and saw the pride and pure joy on their faces as they watched their child ride. 


I will never forget the day I took on an extra lesson at the last minute before I was about to head home. Some new parents had brought their severely autistic child to EquiCenter for his first lesson. It took some time for him to get close to the horse, let alone on top of the horse. He was quite loud and very active. After much prompting and a lot of help, we managed to get him on the horse and walked around the ring a few times. He immediately calmed down and started to smile. I walked over to his parents who were both in tears. After hugging them both, they told me that it had been a very long time since they had seen him that calm and happy. It was then that I fully realized the power of this place, EquiCenter, and how it could affect the lives of so many. 


It wasn’t until a number of years later that I came to understand how important EquiCenter had become in my personal life. I like to say that EquiCenter, the people who work there, and all of the riders and horses, came back and rescued me.  My life, and those of my family, became a roller coaster of ups and a lot more downs. My son, Patrick, began to show signs of the disease of addiction which was rampant in my personal family. This is a struggle that few families can get through and remain whole and I was determined that my family was going to make it. But word came that my younger brother, who had had an addiction to crack and had beat it after four stays in rehab, was walking his dog and was hit by a woman driving a car while texting.  His dog died instantly and my brother died four days later. My children loved him and Patrick felt safe with him since he knew that my brother understood what he was going through.  Patrick relapsed and returned to rehab a few more times.  I have never seen anybody work harder to remain sober and I will always be so proud of him. But as my husband and I sat by the bedside of one of our best friends who was dying of leukemia, our son who was in a halfway house in Florida, went off the radar. Our friend passed away and after ten days of not hearing from Patrick, who would always let us know where he was, we got that terrible knock on our door and was told by two police officers that they had found our son. He had died probably seven days earlier, but since he was in his car, in a parking lot, no one had noticed. 


Two days later, as our house was packed with people, I whispered to my husband that I was scheduled to do a couple of lessons at EquiCenter.  I slipped out of the house quietly and started my twenty-minute drive to the barn.  A peacefulness came over me as I was thinking of my son. I arrived at the barn not knowing that the news of my son's death had already reached the staff and before I could say anything, I was lead to the first horse I had ever walked beside. My arms were brought up for me and placed around this huge horse's neck.  I buried my face in that beautiful horse and had the cry that I couldn’t seem to get out since I heard of my son’s death. A few hours later, I drove back home knowing the craziness I was about to confront. I was so thankful for those few quiet hours at the barn. I did my side walking and looked up at that wonderful, smiling child on top of that horse and I was happy. I drove home with a sense of calmness and a feeling that Patrick was going to be all right. He was done with the pain and the shame that comes with addiction and he was safe. 

Sometime between the death of my brother and the death of my son, I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. This is a neurological autoimmune disease that affects the brain and the spinal cord and attacks and destroys the myelin sheath that protects the nerves in my brain. Once the myelin sheath is gone, the nerve is damaged and whatever that nerve does for my body is also gone. Every day is a roll of the dice and I never know what I will wake up to. To be honest, with the events that had happened since my diagnosis, I mentally put it at the bottom of my list. After Patrick’s death, I began showing up at the barn a good four days a week and that was my therapy. No matter what mood I was in when I went to the barn, I finished my day there smiling, happy, and with a warm feeling in my heart.  As time went by, I knew I was slowing down.  I couldn’t keep up with kids who were trotting, summers became difficult because the heat was overwhelming, and other things were happening in my body that people just could not see.  But I kept side walking because that's what made me happy. The staff knew what was going on and never held me back, but always jumped in to help when they knew I was having trouble keeping up. What a gift they gave me by allowing me to continue to work with the kids. 


It was after my fourth relapse that it occurred to me that I really did have a disease, and therefore a diagnosis, and  I could ride here at EquiCenter. Last fall, forty-five years since that horse threw me to the ground, I began riding again. My love is a horse named Star. She seems to understand that I can get confused with my directions at times and she is so patient when it takes me a while to get her bridle and saddle on.  I knew riding would be good for my muscles, but never knew how challenging it would be for my brain. But it is a wonderful challenge, and I am up for it. I am not only trotting, but I have trotted while riding bareback and I have not fallen off yet!


My life is great. My daughters, husband, and I have learned to understand the disease of addiction.  We know how hard Patrick worked and we also know that we, as a family, did everything we could to back him up.  But most of all, he knew how much we loved him and we knew how much he loved us. Our family has remained whole and even closer if possible.


EquiCenter has taken me full circle and kept me safe during a time in my life that I could have been crushed. I am still a side walker but now I choose who I walk along with due to my physical limitations. No matter what horse you are walking with or what smiling face is looking down on you from the top of that horse, I get that same feeling as I did some eight years ago when I started volunteering.  It is the feeling of warmth, joy, and knowing that I am doing something good and important. And the kids are teaching me that if they can get on top of that horse and screech with happiness, then so can I.      


             Judy Henderson


judy riding.jpg
bottom of page