A little over a year ago my family was lucky enough to purchase our own 8-acre farm. We named it Wish List Farm because, when I look out at the horses grazing it our yard, it’s everything I’ve ever wished for. (My husband says it’s “Wish List Other Than Pool Farm,” but to me it’s perfection.)
One of my favorite things about our farm is sharing it with non-horsey friends. We invite their children to brush our aged pony: “This is a curry. See, you move it in circles.” The toddlers listen and carefully mimic the movement, round and round. Their parents peer wide-eyed at the horses playing in the field and giggle when they see one roll, belly up, for the first time.
I give our visitors ample treats—“hold your palm flat”—and watch them delight in the tickle of a horse tongue, rough against their fingers. It’s incredibly refreshing, in a world that can make me heart-jaded at times, to see our little herd bring such joy.
So when a friend messaged me asking me for horse help, I was all in. Her bestie since childhood, “Jenny” (who asked that her real name not be used), wanted to meet horses. Jenny was now in her 30s, and riding a horse had always been on her “bucket list,” my friend explained. But Jenny’s list wasn’t a hodgepodge of future dreams, nor was riding a “one day I wanna go to Paris to eat a freshly baked croissant then skydive” type of wish. Jenny didn’t have time for frivolities; she was methodically working her way through her list in a race against her body.
Jenny is on hospice, in her mid-30s. All her organs are shutting down due to a rare disorder and strokes, complicated by a brutal case of Covid. Rather than continuing to argue with her body during treatment after treatment, Jenny opted for hospice care. And instead of curling up on the couch wallowing in self-pity, she is making new, beautiful memories. She’s quickly collecting as many of these memories as she can, like plucking the prettiest seashells from the sand, to store in the bucket of her mind.
The trickiest part for Jenny is she has no use of her left side due to a stroke. She relies on a walker and has limited ability to speak. Though she initially dreamt of riding, at this point, that isn’t safe. Still, she was committed to chasing down this dream, even if it simply meant sitting in a grassy field near a grazing horse.
Initially, when my friend explained Jenny’s physical condition, I provided other farms to contact that specialized in therapeutic riding. Unfortunately, these options had lengthy waitlists.
Jenny couldn’t wait because her body was shutting down, and I couldn’t let this dream slip through her fingers.
At Wish List, we have three horses, all seniors. I felt confident I could offer Jenny a partial wish. My friend was incredibly grateful, but again warned me that Jenny would be unable to speak, other than a few raspy words. She would also have difficulty maneuvering. I promised we could still make this happen, even if it simply meant a few minutes in a sun-drenched field with one aged pony.
A few days later, my friend and Jenny crunched down the gravel driveway. I drove down in the Gator, my nerves swirling: Could I make this special enough? Would the horses cooperate? I saw my friend easing Jenny out of the car, and I rushed over to introduce myself and help Jenny get out and find her balance on the safety of her walker.
We lifted Jenny up past the small step to enter the barn, helped her regain her footing and grasp the walker, then slowly made our way down the little aisle. I immediately began introducing the horses. “This is Cupcake, our kids’ aged pony. She’s super-sweet!” “Here’s Robbie, the gentle giant.” “Last but not least, is sweet Daisy. The kindest girl.” Jenny listened attentively.
“Would you like to go out in the field with them?” Jenny nodded without hesitation. Our barn opens to a little paddock, so we guided Jenny into the field where she sat on her walker, while one by one I brought out our herd. Daisy, the rotund matriarch; Robbie, the retired jumper; and little Cupcake, the best babysitter.
We placed a mound of treats on Jenny’s lap, and one by one led them to her. She trickled her good fingers across their muzzles and held out her palm to feel the tickle of lips. She ran the fingers of her working hand through dirty summer coats. The horses were so gentle with her—it was as if they knew her body was made of glass.
Robbie, a hulking 17-hand warmblood, towered over Jenny, but he didn’t scare her. After all, a woman staring down her illness with such ferocity and bravery isn’t easily intimidated. Robbie rested his big, heavy face in Jenny’s lap, nudging her for “more treats, please.” Jenny fed him treat after treat, rubbing his thick forelock, feeling the warm air blow from his nostrils. When she seemed to grow tired, I asked if she’d like to groom Cupcake, and she nodded yes. Though she was wearing a mask, I think she was smiling underneath it.
I brought them all back inside and clipped Cupcake into the crossties. Jenny’s friend and I helped her back down the aisle, situating her walker with Jenny’s good side directly next to pony’s side. I pulled a curry comb and a brush out of the grooming box. “This one you use to remove the dirt,” she nodded. “This one you use to flick the dirt off.” She shook her head up and down once, and I placed an assortment of brushes on her lap.
We didn’t speak. The only sound was the munching of hay. In that near silence, Jenny groomed the little paint pony. And sure, she’s a very good pony, but for my littles, she doesn’t always want to stand still. With Jenny, Cupcake understood. The pony stood like a soldier, unflinching, ignoring the pesky summer flies landing on her legs.
“Would you like to be alone with her here in the barn?” I asked. Jenny bobbed her head like this was the moment she had been anticipating. We gave Jenny space to soak in the horse smells and the subtle sounds of the barn: Robbie and Daisy methodically chewing; Cupcake’s rhythmic breathing.
I drove the Gator up to the house to check on my napping toddler and waited for my friend. She soon texted that Jenny was fatigued, the energy drained from her too easily. I helped reposition Jenny in the passenger seat of the car. She mouthed a “Thank you” and handed me an envelope. I smiled “come back any time,” but she didn’t have that time, and we all knew.
When the car pulled out, I peeled open the envelope. In partial sentences, Jenny wrote:
“Thank you for let me come see horses. Hospital a lot and still am sick. See horses something really wanted to do. So means a lot. Will always appreciate you making happen.”
Later that night, with children snuggled around me, I tried to recapture that hour in a way kids might understand. I reminded them about the importance of “acts of kindness” and how “special” it is to have horses at home to enjoy and share. But I couldn’t quite use words to express the magic I witnessed.
I don’t know what Jenny did there alone in the barn that day, if she brushed or just sat with her palm resting against Cupcake’s round, warm side. In my imagination, for those few minutes, all the cruelty of her world melted away, and Jenny was able to savor the horses. I hope it was everything she had wished for.
Jamie Sindell has an MFA in creative writing from the University of Arizona and has ridden and owned hunters on and off throughout her life. She is a mom of five kids, ages 2, 3, 6, 10 and 13. She and her family reside at Wish List Farm, where her horse-crazy girls play with their small pony, Cupcake, and her son and husband play with the tractor.