It could be anybody’s child: bald and weak, thin or steroid-swollen, mentally and physically exhausted from battling cancer or whatever disease unfairly struck her in the first years of her life.
Yet when that child can perch on a 1,000-pound animal and tell it where to go, sterile hospital rooms are forgotten. Sharp needles are a thing of the past. Weakness is replaced with a renewed spirit of courage and strength.
Just ask any child or parent who has taken part in the equine therapy program at Lexington’s Angel Heart Farm. In letters written to Angel Heart’s founder, Tracy Kujawa, parents exude gratitude and amazement over their child’s experiences at her farm.
“Angel Heart was a place where he felt loved, connected and free,” wrote Stan and Niki* of Tennessee of their 11-year-old son, Gavin, who was diagnosed with leukemia at age 3. “So many really tough days [both emotionally and physically] were made bearable because of the joy we saw in our boy when he was at the farm.”
For Kujawa, seeing that joy is the fulfillment of a dream she had in 1998—the same year she was diagnosed with cancer (she was to endure additional bouts of cancer in subsequent years). “After I got sick my first go-around, I had a dream I was teaching bald kids how to ride horses. It was a God thing,” says Kujawa, who, at the time, was a wardrobe stylist in Nashville for country music stars such as Brooks and Dunn, Martina McBride and Alan Jackson.
“I have always been a horse girl and a farmer’s daughter. You can’t take the country out of the girl,” she says. “So when I had this dream, I went to Vanderbilt University Medical Center [Nashville] and St. Jude Research Hospital [Memphis] and met with doctors and nurses and social workers and asked them if this would be a good fit and the first words out of their mouths were: ‘When do you start?’ ”
She was able to start two years later when she opened Angel Heart Farm near Nashville. It was slow going at first. Kujawa established a board of directors, searched for appropriate horses and ponies, and learned how to write grant requests since the facility is dependent on donations. Only four children took part in the therapy program that first year. “It grew from there,” says Kujawa. “Parents, doctors and kids started talking about it. They are my best advocates for the program.”
With the steady increase in children came a desire to help even more children. Kujawa realized she could move near Lexington and be within driving distance of three major children’s hospitals: University of Kentucky Children’s Hospital in Lexington, Louisville’s Kosair Children’s Hospital and Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. That was in 2010. Today, Kujawa hosts dozens of children and their families, working with every single family member as they all battle the child’s illness.
“I had an 87-year-old grandfather on a horse. He’d never been on a horse before. His grandson, who was sick, wanted his grandfather to get on a horse. So we got Grandpa on a horse,” she says. “I’ve seen families fall apart. You have a sibling who isn’t sick, not understanding why their brother is bald and can’t play anymore. So this is a place for everyone. A place to be quiet. You don’t hear the chemo machines. You don’t have to be around nurses. You leave cancer at the gate.”
Once they get through that gate, kids become cowboys and cowgirls and they can have their pick of nearly a dozen horses and ponies. Kujawa teaches them how to brush the horses, clean the stalls, clean their feet and even put bows on their tails and manes, which Kujawa says some girls are known to do.
“I don’t want people to think we’re just a pony ride,” she says. “It has everything to do with health and happiness and huge memories. It’s a respite place. It’s joyful. It’s not sad; it’s an escape.”
Carol Cottrill, a pediatric cardiologist for UK, has seen the benefits of Kujawa’s program in her patients. “She enables these children to feel some power over these big animals,” Cottrill says. “For a child who feels weak, it makes a big difference. Tracy looks at the kids and accepts them where they are. She enables them to feel good about themselves and the animals.”
The horses seem to enjoy all the attention. Kujawa says Rocky, who was donated by Alan Jackson, seems to be the favorite of many children. But Kujawa’s favorite is her own Arabian mare, Khuryia. It was Khuryia who helped Kujawa endure the emotional and physical challenges throughout her own war with cancer.
“After I had learned of my first diagnosis of cancer, I went into a stall and cried and cried and cried,” she says. Khuryia’s presence gave her comfort. “Sometimes when I was sick, I would go to the barn at 2 o’clock in the morning and just ride … The only time I felt good was when I was riding.”
Parents can testify to horse riding’s therapeutic effects. One Dry Ridge family wrote in a testimonial to Kujawa that their son, A.J., who was undergoing treatment at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital at the time, particularly favored Manny, a Section B Welsh show pony, while his brother, Aaron, gravitated toward Felix, a gray gelding.
“They love to trot and usually start laughing as the first bounce begins,” wrote parents Adam and Darla. “I know that we live in the best state for horses, but we have never met horses like Angel Heart Farm’s.”
One Louisville mother, who signed her letter as “Jacob’s lucky mom,” was nervous about the big animals at first. Her son, who suffers from hemophilia, wasn’t as intimidated. “I know how much Tracy and the volunteers work to have each experience at the farm a safe and pleasant time for all [and] they achieve this every time,” she wrote. “Jacob was taught to brush and clean out Rocky’s feet. My child loves dirt, so he thought that this was the best part of the day … He has learned so much and wears his boots everywhere he goes.”
Those boots, Kujawa says, and a riding helmet are given free of charge to every child in the program. She doesn’t want parents to worry about how to pay for her program on top of mounting medical bills. “It took me eight years to pay off my doctors’ bills, so I can’t even imagine what parents have to pay. Our program is totally free. We won’t even accept money from a parent. We don’t want anybody to pay for anything. That’s why we do fundraisers.”
Depending solely on the charity of others has been difficult at times, but Kujawa says it’s worth it to help her little cowboys and cowgirls—each one of them, some who have passed and those who live to fight another day—hold special places in her heart.
“That’s the hardest part of the program. You get really, really attached. They are not a number. It’s family.”
For more information about Angel Heart Farm, visit angelheartfarm.net.
*Last names were not included to protect the families’ privacy.