On Aug. 6, 2015, Helen Woodward Animal Center’s Therapeutic Riding Program received a very special visit from a very special rider. Four generations of family members and beloved friends gathered in the Center’s Riding Arena to watch 97-year-old Helen Downey check her “No. 1 item” off her Bucket List – to ride a horse again. The forever-young senior (and her senior therapeutic horse named Noodles) showed everyone watching that age is truly a state of mind.
Lifelong Love of Horses
Helen Downey grew up in Los Angeles County and began horseback riding as a child. Her father owned a cattle ranch 60 miles northeast of Fresno and, at just 8-years-old, Downey would help her father herd the cattle along the Kings River for up to four days at a time. During the school year, Downey even rode her horse to a one-room school house, tethering him to a post and riding him back home each day when school was finished.
Throughout Downey’s adult life, she rode horses casually while living in Connecticut and again from time to time when she returned to California and moved to Rancho Santa Fe, but never with the regularity she experienced as a child. As the years went on, horseback riding became a beautiful part of her past. For most people, the experience would have simply become one reserved for memory. But Downey isn’t like most people.
Senior Dreams of Horseback Riding
A recent dream reignited her interest in climbing back onto a horse.
“I live at La Costa Glen in Carlsbad, which is a wonderful place with lots of household pets,” Downey said. “A few weeks back, I had a dream about a horse. I was standing next to it, and I knew I was going to ride it. When I woke up, I felt happy and I talked to my friends about it.”
The dream prompted a “bucket list” discussion amongst the La Costa Glen residents.
“Riding a horse topped mine,” Downey explained. “Second on the list was getting an iPad and getting into the modern age.”
A friend of Downey’s suggested Helen Woodward Animal Center’s Therapeutic Riding Program, and Helen’s granddaughter, Jennifer Henkel, made the phone call.
Therapeutic Riding at Helen Woodward Animal Center
“Never stop dreaming. With a little help, those dreams can come true at any age.” -Helen Downey, Age 97
Helen Woodward Animal Center’s Therapeutic Riding Program was established in 1980 and was originally developed to assist children and adults with a variety of special needs from cerebral palsy, to Down’s syndrome and autism, to stroke recovery and learning disabilities. Students ride specially-trained horses with certified instructors in weekly sessions to develop increased balance and muscle control, improve concentration and short-term memory, and enhance confidence and self-esteem. Therapeutic riding can benefit individuals with a wide range of challenges, be it cognitive, physical, emotional, social or a combination. But perhaps one of the most significant impacts of the program is the unmistakable joy its riders receive.
When the Center’s Therapeutic Riding staff received Henkel’s phone call, all agreed that Downey was unlike any rider who had requested assistance from their program.
“Many seniors would be intimidated by riding a horse,” said Therapeutic Riding Instructor Gretchen Davis. “It’s quite an athletic feat, which is part of the reason it is such good exercise and physical therapy for our clients. But our program works with all sorts of physical needs and being elderly certainly wasn’t the most challenging we’ve seen, particularly when you have the type of spirit that Helen has.”
The staff selected Noodles, a 25-year-old Thoroughbred for Downey’s ride. Although one of the most senior at the facility (at approximately 75 years in human years), Noodles is also one of the most alert and vibrant with a genuine attentiveness to his riders. When Noodles and Downey met, there was an instant friendship and a noted similarity in their personalities. Neither seems to act their age.
“Meeting Helen was a shot in the arm,” Davis said. “We work with incredible clients every single day, but every now and again, one comes along who helps you see the program in a completely different light. Helen and Noodles’ connection was beautiful. Age didn’t factor in. They both looked like they could have ridden together all day.”
Downey credits a commitment to maintaining a positive spirit for her active, fulfilling lifestyle. Taking a moment for a cool sip of water in the shade after her ride, Downey’s joy was clear and contagious. Amid beaming family and friends she reflected, “Never stop dreaming. With a little help, those dreams can come true at any age.”