It all started when Jennifer was in the prime of her curiosity at the fence of her neighbor’s house that touched her own backyard. As Jennifer and her older sister would approach the fence, the majestic creatures would be on the other side; one was an old, retired racehorse named Fooler and the other was a pony named Valerie. That was the beginning of it all.
It wasn’t long before Jennifer’s mom enrolled them in horseback riding lessons. “We quit everything else and little did my mom know she was creating monsters,” Jennifer laughed.
Eventually, Jennifer and Julie received their first pony in 1995 named Gilly, giving wings to Jennifer’s passion. However, it was only a few short years later, in 1999, that those wings would be restricted for quite some time. The restriction took the form of a rare liver cancer. Jennifer was 13-years-old when she was diagnosed.
Jennifer was sick all throughout 7th grade, leaving doctors stumped and sending her home with a few false diagnoses. After doing several CAT scans, they found what Jennifer described as an “orange-sized” tumor on her liver. Jennifer immediately underwent surgery where they discovered it was cancer and she began chemotherapy right away.
From January of 1999 to that spring, Jennifer was in the hospital because she was so ill. During those impressionable middle school days, it was Gilly that was her main motivation for getting better and getting out. Gilly was her light at the end of the treatment. “I was in the hospital and they told me I was too weak to leave so I would do leg lifts and say, ‘Look! I’m strong. I can go ride my horse,’” Jennifer reminisced.
Jennifer had an extremely low immune system, yet she wanted to go to one of the dirtiest environments: a barn.
Because Jennifer’s illness was critical, Make-A-Wish entered the picture.
“I remember my wish granters coming and asking me what I wanted to do. They were giving examples of wishes like going to Hawaii and I was so overwhelmed. I remember thinking, ‘I don’t think I can make it to Hawaii, I can barely make it up the stairs!’” Jennifer laughed.
However, Jennifer knew in some capacity her wish would involve horses.
“Horses were my life and Gilly helped me keep my strength up during treatment. I knew I wanted a wish that had something to do with horses.”
While Jennifer was still in between deciding and finishing treatment, she put her wish on a brief hold. She went on a family trip to Las Vegas to see the 2000 World Cup, the annual international competition involving the world’s best dressage horses and riders. It was there that she met Debbie McDonald and Brentina, who were there performing a dressage exhibition. “I had read an article in The Chronicle of the Horse about how she was this up and coming star. She was so sweet, and her horse was so sweet.”
After she left, Jennifer wanted to hang out with Debbie and her horse more, narrowing down an overwhelming list of endless opportunities to her unique wish: I wish to see Debbie McDonald.
Debbie worked with Jennifer’s schedule and it was set for Jennifer to travel to Del Mar, California to watch Debbie and Brentina at the Grand Prix. Jennifer had suffered so much damage from the chemotherapy that she was in a lot of pain, doubtful that she would have the strength to reunite with her friend. “I was so sick all the time that I didn’t want to get my hopes up. I didn’t know my wish was coming true until it was actually happening.”
The wish day came in April of 2002. Jennifer traveled with her mom, dad and sister to watch Debbie McDonald and Brentina compete in the prestigious Grand Prix freestyle. Jennifer, their biggest fan, anxiously waited in her seat.
And they won. According to an article written after the victory, Debbie referred to it as their best ride ever, making it more special that Jennifer was there to witness it.
“It was so magical,” said Jennifer.
Jennifer’s time with Debbie and Brentina was not cut short, as Brentina’s owners, Perry and Peggy Thomas, welcomed Jennifer as their own. They let Jennifer walk Brentina and feed her carrots. Though they have since passed, their impact has not. “Their whole family completely embraced me,” said Jennifer.
When Jennifer left to return home, it was a mutual understanding between her and Debbie that they would see each other again. And they would.
Jennifer and Debbie kept in contact and would email and talk almost every day following the wish. Not only would Jennifer go back and visit Debbie, but Debbie would come and visit her. “I went to her home because I wanted to teach her on her pony. I went and stayed with them and it was such a special time,” said Debbie.
One of Jennifer’s symptoms from the intense chemotherapy was losing the feeling in her hands and feet, referred to as peripheral neuropathy. According to Jennifer, it was the worst from about ages 14-25. “I credit my horse. I gained the feeling in my legs back from horseback riding every day. Debbie even came a few times to give me lessons.”
Jennifer is now 32-years-old and is in remission. Now with more years ahead of her diagnosis than behind, she reflects on her wish.
“My wish was the first time I started to feel better. When I look back on when I had cancer, obviously I think about my surgery, but I also think about this amazing wish I had that impacted the rest of my life. Through my friendship with Debbie, to all the incredible things I was able to do, it really helped paint a more positive picture during something that was so unpredictable and scary.”
Jennifer’s horse, Gilly, is now 27-years-old. Brentina is retired in a pasture. Debbie is now the Coach for the USA Dressage team and is still deeply impacted by Jennifer’s wish.
“Over the years, we’ve kept in touch. She’s grown into this beautiful woman and I’m so proud of her and what she’s accomplished,” said Debbie. “The whole experience was more than just an emotional thing, it was an honor.”
Jennifer, Brentina and Debbie McDonald. Three beings with very different stories, yet their paths crossed at just the right time. Debbie, drawn to both Brentina and Jennifer, shared an unbreakable bond with each of them. As for Brentina and Jennifer, their similarities form a subtle, forceful bond.
An article written on Brentina said: “She moves through her days accompanied by a cast of supporters.” Brentina is poetic and shy, yet powerful—much like Jennifer.
Brentina and Jennifer, both having their own battle to win, raced toward the direction of victory. Accompanied by their supporters, they both won.