A Very Special Horse

by Sheila Heuer

People often ask me how I discovered I had cancer. The answer is simple: a horse.

Like most horse lovers, I fell in love with horses as a little girl. In high school, I worked for a veterinarian and came to care for two horses. Then, when I was 16 years old, a wonderful big thoroughbred I was working with spooked and I got two black eyes, a split lip, and a major headache. It was not the horse’s fault, but it would be 30 years before I sat on the back of a horse again. Life got in the way.

Then two years ago, my friend Mike dared me, over and over, to ride again. That was it; the bet was on! As the time for my first lesson approached, I began to panic. Mike drove me and stood by for moral support. But at first, I couldn’t even touch the horse; it would take months to earn my trust again.

Then I met Cowboy. I fell in love. Suddenly, I had a new passion. I took lessons and classes and spent as much time as I could with this beautiful horse. Cowboy has the most beautiful brown eyes. The first time I looked into those eyes, my fear was gone. Fear can be conquered by love and trust.

One evening I began to saddle up with Gail, the owner of the stable. Cowboy wrapped himself around me and bumped my lower back with his nose.

“Is he trying to bite me?” I asked, surprised. Gail assured me he wasn’t; he was just trying to tell me something.

Later that night, while practicing an emergency stop, I felt a small snap in my lower back. As I put Cowboy away, he bumped me again in the same spot. He was acting really strange.

When the tightness in my back continued, I decided that I might have pulled something. I ended up seeing several doctors, but they kept saying I was fine. I kept insisting I wasn’t. Cowboy continued to bump me and he seemed tense.

After several more tests, I was finally told I had cancer in my right kidney. The tumor was very large, and they’d have to remove my kidney. Doctors said I’d have to give up any hope of riding again.

Once they said the word “cancer,” my world stopped. No matter how many times they said it, I still believed they were wrong. I remember searching each x-ray and scan for my name and date of birth. Surely they were mistaken. But that was not the case. The films were mine, and I did have cancer.

I remember clearly not being able to catch my breath. I was scared. I knew I needed to touch the one thing that made me forget about my fears: Cowboy. I asked my husband to take me to him. I walked into his stall and pressed my heart against his, wrapping my arms around his neck. I cried. I continued to cry until my eyes were swollen shut. He just stood quietly, not moving, until I stepped back.

The mood shifted as I pushed a pile of hay toward him with my boot. He pushed it back at me with his nose. We pushed it back and forth until I started laughing.

“He is trying to feed you so you will feel better,” my husband said.

As I was leaving the barn, I asked Gail if I could keep visiting Cowboy, though I could no longer ride. She pulled me into a big hug.

“If we have to put a cot in his stall, you can be with him,” she said.

When I started seeing a new doctor, I told her about Cowboy and how much I wanted to ride again. I remember her exact words.

“I would never take away something that will keep you alive,” she said. She predicted that in eight weeks I’d be back riding Cowboy again.

Eight weeks to the day, I returned to see Cowboy. He stood quietly smelling me. He looked at me with those big, kind eyes and lowered his head, pressing his forehead against mine. It was his way of telling me that everything was going to be okay. I climbed on his back. He wouldn’t move. No amount of pushing or pulling would work, he just refused to move. We repeated this process for the next several weeks.

Then one day he must have decided I was well enough, because he started walking around with me on his back. I remember thinking I must be okay. It took several weeks more but eventually we began to trot.

About four months after the surgery, on a really beautiful spring day, I asked him if we could go a bit faster during our usual trot. He put his head down, gathered up every muscle, and took off like a rocket. When we finally stopped, we were both out of breath but happy.

This was over two years ago, and I am blessed to say I am cancer-free.

Bio: Sheila Heuer lives in Northern California with her husband of 30 years, Kurt, who’s a California Highway Patrol Officer. They have two grown children, Kurt Patrick and Jordan Elizabeth, along with a German Shepherd named Nixie.

Sheila owns her own business and also volunteers at Whiskeytown National Recreation Area and with several non-profit organizations. Besides her volunteer work, she loves to travel the world and spend time with her family, friends, and Cowboy. She invites you to e-mail her at Greatsmile61@yahoo.com.