By Jerrie Kelly, Horse&Rider Magazine
Jerrie Kelly, a breast cancer survivor, tells the story of her senior horse Phalcon.
I was shocked to be diagnosed with breast cancer in November of 2007. My father had died of cancer, but no one in my family had ever had breast cancer.
My oncologist told me we'd caught it early, which was good, but that it was a highly aggressive form of cancer—not so good. We had to hit it with both barrels, he said. If it came back after the initial treatment, it wouldn't be curable.
I had a lumpectomy, then heavy chemotherapy, then radiation. All that was followed by intravenous injections of Herceptin—a relatively new medication that targets my specific form of cancer— every three weeks for a year.
In the middle of all this, my best friend of 12 years—my Miniature Pinscher, Mabel—died unexpectedly.
This proved to be a turning point of sorts. It all just seemed too much.
I was distraught, grieving, and plain worn out. I began to wonder, as people sometimes do in such circumstances, how my life would end.
"You're almost 60 and you've just fought a battle against cancer," I told myself. "Your dad died of cancer. This is just the way it's going to be to the end."
In other words, I gave up. I did nothing but sit on the couch and stare at the television. My family—my husband and our two grown daughters—tried to comfort me, but the depression persisted in spite of their efforts.
Then something happened that would change my outlook forever.
We live on a farm, and our daughters and their families live next door. In December of 2008, my sister-in-law asked if she could retire her 23-year-old Arabian gelding to our farm. Barb had owned Phalcon for 22 years and had trained him herself. She'd used him in 4-H and he'd taught many children to ride. My husband and I had four small grandchildren; we figured the old horse would be happy here.
Phalcon arrived on a beautiful spring day. I watched as he was unloaded from the trailer, then went back to my couch.
A few weeks later, my husband came in from the barn and said, "Jennifer wants to go for a ride." Jennifer is our eldest daughter; she owns a Paint gelding, Domino. "I have Phalcon saddled," my husband went on, "if you'd like to go with her.
For a moment I didn't respond. Horses are big, strong, unpredictable animals, and we hadn't owned any for 20 years, since my girls were small.
Still, the notion stirred something within me.
"Well?" my husband asked.
I looked up at him and smiled. "OK ."
I pulled on some boots, trudged out to the barn, and let my husband help me mount up. I wish I could say I was calm and composed, but in fact I was a nervous wreck. After what I'd been through, I figured I had no business taking a risk like this.
Then we started to walk, and something clicked inside me. I felt myself falling in love with Phalcon. He just took care of me—no other way to put it. He seemed to know how much I was hurting emotionally, and how much I needed him. He took me out for fresh air and sunshine, walks in the woods, and a new lease on life.
Before I knew it, I was grooming, feeding, mucking stalls, and loving it. Whenever I went outside and Phalcon saw me, he'd greet me with gentle nickers. I'd hold his head and kiss his velvety muzzle as he watched me with his big, soft eyes.
Soon I was riding at every opportunity. I forgot all about my troubles. I got stronger and felt so much better.
My family began acquiring more horses, so more of us could ride together. We traveled to different places for weekend trail rides. In every picture from those trips I have a huge, happy smile on my face.
I still have Phalcon today; he's teaching the grandkids to ride. And with the confidence he gave me, I've acquired a new horse, a Walking Horse mare, to ride.
My heart still belongs to him, however. Good medical care and family support may've helped me beat my illness, but Phalcon is the "medicine" that healed my broken spirit.
Jerrie Kelly and her husband live on a 65-acre farm in Demossville, Kentucky. Her days are filled with grandkids and caring for the family's seven horses. Phalcon, now 25, is still going strong, and so is Jerrie at 60. "There's no curative in the world like the love of a horse," she says.