A Nine Year Lesson in Bravery

Horse girls are rough and tumble.  Horse girls are brave and tough.  They learn early to suck it up and kick on.  When working with an animal eight to 14 times your size, you’d better figure out quick if you have the moxie to stay the course.

I’ve seen little farm girls giggling while riding snorting broncs and I’ve seen trust fund daughters ride jumper courses with a broken wrist held together with vet wrap and two Advil.

A friend in her 60’s played polo her whole life.  The doctor told her that if she had another fall, her retinas would detach and she would be blind.  She played anyway and went down hard on the field breaking her neck.  After two months in the hospital she said “you know what?  My eyes are just fine!”

There’s a Spanish proverb that says “When I am on my horse, only God is taller than I.” Horse girls don’t fear what normal people fear.  They fear confinement, they fear boredom.  They crave the sun and wind on their face and strong muscles carrying them far and wide. They go to great lengths to feed their obsession.

Gabriela was a horse girl through and through.  We first met when she was 17 years old and 50lbs. She traveled in a wheelchair

“Courage is being scared to death, and saddling up anyway.” John Wayne

powered by an aid. She couldn’t talk without the help of a communicator and she couldn’t bring the communicator to the barn. I learned to ask yes or no questions and she would respond with eye movement when she wasn’t too tired.  Our first ride lasted five minutes before she fell asleep exhausted but happy. She’d been told by two different facilities that she was “too disabled to ride.”  But she knew she needed to ride.

I tried leading a trusty horse with two side walkers, but she couldn’t support herself and I realized that even with the strongest and the most attentive side walkers, it wasn’t safe and it didn’t give her the dignity of the ride she so richly deserved.  Gabriela wanted to ride.  I took a deep breath and a leap of faith and hopped up on the horse’s back, took Gabriela in my arms and away we went.

That was nine years ago.  In those intervening years, we had adventures.  Gabriela loved to go fast and I worked had to find and train horses that could deliver for her. We rode Feathers, Sugar, LeRoi, Cometa, Classica, Bob, Gigi and for the last couple of years – Django. If the arena was quiet and the horse steady, we would canter together.  Sometimes, she’d fall asleep in my arms and if I could, we just kept riding.  There were days I told her all kinds of things and days I relished the quiet ride.  She never complained unless we didn’t do enough trotting or cantering.  I’d get a Facebook message from her or a note from her mom or one of her aides telling me that rides were fine, but she really liked to

photo by Paul Van Allen
photo by Paul Van Allen

“go fast.”  There were scares, like the time the horse tripped and went to his knees with Gabriela in my arms. I was horrified! Gabriela’s aid looked at her face and her smile was as wide as Texas.  She loved it.

She loved Greg and when he could, he’d take her on a trail ride.  It took Herculean strength to balance her body coming down hills and iron thighs to not squish her while going up them.  Greg

Photo by Paul Van Allen
Photo by Paul Van Allen

alone could do it.

Gabriela died Friday losing her battle with a nasty flu.  I wonder what I would have done differently if I’d known that her ride a couple of weeks ago was our last together.

Tomorrow I’m saddling up my red pony and galloping up the biggest hill I can find. I will hold Gabriela in my heart with me.  It will have to do.

For nine years, Gabriela taught me about bravery.  She knew a fall would kill her frail body, and she rode anyway.  Toughest horse girl I’ll ever know.

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20 Replies to “A Nine Year Lesson in Bravery”

  1. Joel, what a brave little girl,and what a true horsewoman you were to give her
    a chance to be normal. She was blessed to have found you. Rejoice in the difference you made in her life. Jan

  2. Dear friend –
    How wonderful that you could see and recognize her soul and its needs (and delights) when many people probably saw only her shell. Blessings will always accompany such courage on BOTH sides – and I’ll bet she will be there galloping along with you, faster than you this time. Thanks for sharing such a tribute. I’m sorry for her loss, but awed that in a short life she could touch another person so deeply.

  3. Thank you so much for sharing this beautiful story. I have tears pouring down my face .. She’ll be watching you now giving the same love and kindness to others. Bless you.

  4. How many times had I watched you securely holding Gabriela in your arms on the horse … That feeling of love that you feel flow from you to the other person and feel it coming back to you. From them, is the most cherished and privileged feeling you can imagine. Bravo Gabriela … Bravo Joell. …..signed Joell’s ever-adoring MOM 5/26/14.

  5. Amazing… Your work is wonderful. I was so pleased to read your reflections of Gabriela and the relationship she had with Squarepeg. Nicely said. May you be able to bring many more special moments like those you had with Gabriela, to others.

  6. I only knew Gabriela through her caregiver Sarah. I was so amazed at what Gabriela was doing with her life that I wanted to get to know her. With tears rolling down my face I want to thank you for stories and what a courageous young woman she was.

  7. It’s a purposeful life when you can make a difference in the lives of others… long or short. It’s a beautiful life when it brings joy! I’d say you’ve shared the love and the beauty of each day of this blessed child’s life. It just doesn’t get any better than that! Well lived my friend

  8. Joell, thank you for being the kind of horse girl who reads others the way a horse does–intuitively. You did that for Gabriela. Thank you for caring about her and for sharing this beautiful story. –Jan Loveless

  9. As i go ride my horse Jack, I will hold Gabriela and you in my heart. What a beautiful story – thanks for sharing :))

  10. such a heartwarming kind story. The tears rolling are tears of joy. You are an amazing inspiring person. You gave Gabriela wonderful memories!

  11. Every year for the past 5 years the Monday and Tuesday after Mothers Day my daughter and I load up our rescue horse (a paint cross gelding) named Trigger and head out to the local fairgrounds for an amazing event called Corey’s day on the farm. The county busses in special needs kids from the schools and they get to spend they day riding horses, trying to rope a steer head, petting the animals in the petting area and tanking horse drawn carriage and tractor pulled wagon rides. It has been the most amazing experience interacting with kids with a wide range of disabilities. I too have had the privledge of riding with a special child that could not support themselves and hearing the small noises they could make of joy and seen the silent smile on their face. Every year the last weekend in June at the same fair grounds we put on a rodeo that all the proceeds go to put on the next years Coerys day. My daughter and I are honored to be a part of the drill team for the grand entry of the rodeo. The Thunderbird Rodeo is in it’s 10 the year and this past Corey’s day was its 23rd year. It all started with the Corey family and their special needs son when they brought his class to their farm and has blossomed into what it is today. Over 1500 kids enjoying something other than their every day life and getting to step out of their “box” people tend to put them in. Bless you for the bond you created with the one you got to do this for so long and so sorry for your loss.

  12. Dear Joell,

    I read your story about Gabriela in RIDING magazine. I was moved deeply, and inspired even more so. You see, despite being a former hunter-jumper trainer, pain and frailty — due to my own chronic health issues — have made me fearful of the greatest joy in my life: riding. After reading about Gabriela and getting a glimpse of her courage and her consequences-be-damned will to be on a horse, I decided to put aside my own fears and get on one of my horses today, after not riding for many months. Gabriela is my new hero; I only wish I could have told her so before she passed away. I wonder if there is any way I might be able to get a hard copy of a photo of Gabriela, as I think this remarkable young woman will continue to be an inspiration to me for many years to come, and I would like to have a picture of her in my home. I would also like her mother to know what reading about her had done for me, if at all possible.

    Thank you for sharing her story, and for the remarkable work you do for so many.


    Susan Kauffmann

    1. Hello Susan,

      Thank you for your beautiful note. I’m having lunch with Gabriela’s mother tomorrow and I will share your sentiments face to face with her. If you will privately email me your mailing address, I’m honored to send you a photo.

      Here’s hoping your ride was only one of many to come and that you find your peace on the back of one of your beloved horses.

  13. Wowwww!I can’t go to work with tears in my eyes… Haha…of joy of course… Joy in knowing such wonderful people exists!!my life hasn’t been easy but now I’m lucky enough to own a horse who saved me!it must be hard getting on a horse without her!but stay strong!wish you the best..rides! :)) rosy

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