Anne Wood is the type of woman who radiates warmth, with a beaming smile and kind nature. Her enthusiasm is contagious, and her willingness to take on new challenges is positively inspiring. To meet her, you’d never realize the loss and obstacles she’s overcome or the heartache she’s experienced, and when she shares her story, there’s nothing left but to be completely in awe of her.
The first big loss of Anne’s life came when she was eight years old, and her father passed away. It was he who introduced her and her sister to horses, taking them to ride a friend’s Shetland ponies. After he died, she says she did whatever she could to be around horses. “I didn’t care if I rode or not, I just loved being in the barns and close to them,” she said. “Horses have always helped me to cope with the intensities in my life, by bringing me to the present moment, where I can be myself without worries of the past or future.”
In a nod to what would later be revealed as her incredible wellspring of determination and resourcefulness, Anne purchased her first horse in cooperation with another student in high school. “We kept Cinnamon, a ¾ Thoroughbred, at a barn where we were responsible for all her physical and financial care,” she said. “I used to drive to the barn before school to feed and care for her, and I worked in a pharmacy after school hours to make the money needed to support her.”
Anne says she learned about the tougher side of horse ownership from her time with Cinnamon, who was diagnosed with navicular syndrome and underwent surgery to remove a nerve to her foot. “I learned to cope with the disappointment and heartache, while realizing that the purchase cost of the horse is a small investment compared to the responsibility of caring for the health of the horse on a long-term basis.”
Anne gave her share of Cinnamon to her friend when she went on to pay her way through a BSc degree in Agriculture/Horticulture at the University of Guelph. Her friend became a veterinarian.
Anne was fortunate to rediscover the thrills of horse ownership when Stormy, a Quarter Horse gelding, came into her life as a young adult living with her husband Kevin on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. “I rode him in the mountains near our house and on long distance rides, including a 100-mile ride and a 10-day camping trip,” she said. “That was a very precious time because I got to do many of the things I had always wanted to do with a horse. He was also the first horse I had at home, just outside my door. That was a dream come true for me.”
A Shattered Life
Anne and Kevin moved back to Ontario to start a family in 1983, and welcomed their daughter Sarah in 1986. At that time, Rainy, a registered Quarter Horse, was serving the role of Anne’s “dream horse,” and she had plans to breed the mare. It was a busy and exciting time in Anne’s life, but it wouldn’t be long before she faced a series of staggering blows.
In March 1988, Anne and Kevin were expecting the birth of their second child when an ultrasound revealed that the baby girl had died, just two weeks before her due date. “For the next two months, I was trying to return to daily life – caring for our 13-month-old daughter, going to grief meetings with my husband, and riding my horse Rainy again,” said Anne. “All this time, I was experiencing increasingly severe and frequent headaches until one day, my headache was so severe I went to the ER at the local hospital. I remained there for seven days, while being misdiagnosed and continuing to decline. Kevin insisted I get a CT scan and I was eventually sent to Peterborough for one. It revealed a massive bleed in my brain. I was kept overnight for further investigation, which found seven “cannonball” lung tumours and at least two brain tumours, one of which had bled. I then had another bleed in my brain and [fell] unconscious with trouble breathing and an irregular heart rate.
“On May 17, 1988, I was sent by ambulance to the Sunnybrook Trauma Unit, where a neurosurgical team was waiting for me. When I arrived, I was in a coma, but the surgeon decided to operate anyway because of my young age of 32. The life-saving surgery removed my right occipital lobe [brain tissue responsible for vision] because it was so damaged by the bleeding in my brain. My family was told that I would be in a coma for several weeks or months after surgery and if I survived, I would likely have brain damage and vision loss. I woke within hours of surgery.
“I was then diagnosed with Stage 4 lung and brain metastases of a very rare cancer called choriocarcinoma, a cancer of the placenta. It is an extremely aggressive cancer, and before 1975, was always fatal for women. This type of cancer spreads very quickly and rapidly builds up resistance to chemotherapy agents. Fortunately, there was a world-renowned expert in the treatment of choriocarcinoma at a nearby hospital and he was called in to treat me.
“Within hours of my diagnosis, I was started on a very aggressive course of chemotherapy. I had a drain from my brain because all the bleeding sites could not be controlled. I received weekly treatments in Toronto for several months. Between treatments, I would return to our home in the country to try to care for our daughter. I was very weak; my left eye was turned toward my nose; I was seeing double; was now legally blind and trying to adjust to my vision loss. Kevin’s mother stayed with us until her husband, Kevin’s father, died of an unexpected cardiac arrest in the middle of my treatments. By that time, we were emotionally numb as we attended the funeral for his father and picked out a marker for our daughter’s grave.”
Anne’s daughter Sarah turned two years old on August 1, 1988, and her cancer treatments ended just over a week later. “I then had to start to rehabilitate from my illness and to learn to live with vision and cognitive losses,” she said.
“My vision loss is called a left complete homonymous hemianopsia without macular sparing. If you think of normally having vision in four quadrants, I have a small “window” of functional vision in my lower right quadrant, but nothing anywhere else, including no central vision.
“The massive bleed in my brain left me with several challenges including: left neglect, meaning I don’t realize there is a left side to the world, especially in unfamiliar situations; short-term memory loss; inability to tolerate
light and background noise; reduced stamina; inability to recognize faces; and the predisposition to headaches and fatigue when over-stimulated.”
Rainy was the first horse Anne rode after her vision loss. “After my surgery, when I was in the hospital for a month receiving treatment, I asked Kevin to sell her. He refused, insisting that I would ride again some day.”
In the early days of her recovery, Anne said she’d exchange her head scarf for her riding helmet and Kevin would lead her around on Rainy. “It was very challenging for me because my balance was very poor and I was weak.
I didn’t tell my doctors I was doing this because it was important that I not fall and hit my head, and I was very susceptible to infections. I took the risk because it was so important for me to feel like I was living, not dying.”
A year after the ordeal, Kevin’s brother, a large animal vet, gifted Anne with a foal named Lil, who was born the day of her life-saving surgery. “Kevin’s father had named her before he died, so this horse was extra special,” said Anne. “While Lil was too young to ride, I walked her in the fields around our house. We bonded during that time and she followed me everywhere. When she was ready, I started to train her, but soon realized it was beyond my abilities. She went to a trainer, where I learned to ride again, while Lil learned to be a very reliable saddle horse.”
Anne says both Rainy and Lil helped her immensely as she struggled to regain herself after her illness. “They taught me that I could still do some of the things I loved, but would have to learn how to do them differently,” she said. “During the times I was with them, I could let go of my grief, my fear of a future recurrence, and just be in the present moment with them.”
Yet More Challenges
Though she was on the path to recovery, Anne found it incredibly isolating living out in the country with a young child, with no driver’s license, and medical issues to contend with. “These challenges significantly affected our lives,” she said. “The couple of years following my illness, I was grieving the death of our daughter, the loss of my career, vision, health, driver’s license and resulting independence.
“After being in the country for four years, we realized that we would have to move to a city where I could re-educate myself and access public transportation. In 1991, we moved to Peterborough, where I attended Fleming College and graduated three years later with a diploma in Employment Counselling.”
Living in the city presented new obstacles to Anne’s ability to be with horses, though. “We could afford to board only one horse, so I had to sell Rainy,” she said. “For me to be with my horse, required Kevin to drive me to and from the barn, with Sarah in tow, and stay to help me. I was very aware how my passion for my horse was impacting my family, and the financial strain it caused. It was also very frustrating for me because it highlighted my dependency, as I was desperately trying to be independent.”
Sadly, Lil had a terrible accident at her boarding stable and suffered a significant head injury, resulting in a broken jaw, damage to her left eye and the atrophy of a major muscle in her shoulder. “I kept her through her recovery and for a couple of years after that, but then had to let her go to a home where she was going to have babies. It was one of the hardest things I have done, but, with her injury and challenges, she was no longer safe for me.”
After she sold her horses, Anne took riding lessons with Colleen Baptist, a Canadian Therapeutic Riding Association Instructor. “Mac, the horse I rode at Colleen’s, was very special and took good care of me as we cantered up hills. That gave me a feeling of freedom that I had lost through not being able to drive, and the dependency that created.”
When she could no longer reliably get to the barn for lessons, she took a break from horses that lasted 10 years. “I was then working, actively involved in Sarah’s life, caring for my mother with Alzheimer’s and volunteering in our community. I was also matched with my first dog guide, a black lab named Kore. Bonding and working with Kore was a major commitment.”
Then, on Kevin’s 53rd birthday, their lives took another turn when he suffered a cardiac event while playing hockey. That led to two years of significant health challenges and then to his near death, and a heart transplant on his 55th birthday.
After a decade away from horses, Anne was searching the internet for disability related issues, and she discovered miniature horses. “Miniature horses immediately captured my interest and I began researching them,” she said. “At the time, I was working as an ambassador for a program to encourage people with disabilities to be more active in sport and recreation. After meeting with a local man with minis, I took a few driving lessons with his miniature horse. We then developed a six-week program for people with disabilities to go to the farm and learn about miniature horses. It was wonderful to see how these horses interacted with people and how much joy they brought to the participants. So often, people with disabilities become isolated. Programs like this give them opportunities to get to the country, enjoy horses and socialize with others.”
Soon, Anne became interested in having a mini of her own. “As I was looking for my horse, I discovered many of the ways you can have loads of fun with these small horses. All this led me to my first miniature horse, Dancer. She was one of the most special horses I have ever known. She was brave, intelligent and a very willing partner. I trained her to drive with help from others and she was awesome.
“Kevin was fully supportive of my connection with Dancer and he too developed his own connection with her. The three of us went for frequent walks, had many wonderful play times together and we realized the importance of having fun as a couple, after being together for over 30 years. It was the first time that Kevin showed that level of participation with one of my horses, and it was magical. I used to say we were a herd of three!
“I also learned with Dancer, a new and more gentle way of connecting with horses. Getting to know her inspired me to do things differently, attempting to reach a partnership instead of feeling at times that I had to be the dominant one in the relationship. I was always fair and loving to my horses, but at times believed I had to be the boss to be safe. Dancer and the other people at the barn where she was boarded showed me another way that was much more compatible to my sensitive nature and love for horses.
“Most of all, Dancer showed me how important horses are to my fulfillment and well-being. She completely filled the gap that I had been denying for years. She also gave me the confidence to be around horses again, both large and small. I felt totally comfortable, confident and relaxed with her. That was her gift to me.”
Tragically, Dancer passed away unexpectedly, leaving Anne heart-broken. She wondered if it was the end of horse ownership for her. A short time later though, Maggie appeared on the scene. “Maggie and I found one another within two months of Dancer’s death,”said Anne. “I was still very much grieving her loss, but realized how much I needed another horse, and if I didn’t do it then, I might not be able to later.
“Maggie was two years old when she came to us. We have been so fortunate to have another very special miniature horse. She is very curious, brave, learns really quickly, and has a very strong play drive. She is also very versatile, allowing us to enjoy many different activities with her. We enjoy hiking, liberty play, free-jumping, mountain trail obstacle challenges and driving.”
Anne says that when people hear her story, they sometimes comment on how “unlucky” she has been. “But,” she said, “I feel very fortunate to have survived my brain hemorrhage, cancer and other life challenges. Certainly, I’ve experienced a lot of difficulties, but I’m always aware that it could have been much worse!
“My cancer history, and the risk of recurrence, has contributed to my commitment to live my life as fully as possible. I’ve embraced challenges and always looked for ways to do what is important to me. I recognized early on that it was futile to try to go back to the person I was before my illness and that the only way to a quality life for me and my family was to accept my limitations, while appreciating my strengths and abilities.
“I also had to learn to accept the changes that I could not control. There are so many life events that we don’t have control of, but resisting change causes us to become stuck. We can make a conscious decision to shift our perspective and “go with the flow.” For me, it’s important to have goals, but I try to limit my expectations in life, because I think one of the most important skills we can have to cope with the uncertainties in life is to be change ready.
“I hope, through current and future life challenges, I will continue to choose living over the fear of dying; gratitude for what I have over grief for what I have lost; desire for new experiences and adventures over fear of making mistakes; and the ability to stay awake to all the inspiration that is around me.”