The Healing Power of Horses

One woman's horse gave her hope in a time of despair.

From America’s Horse

Pamela Higginbotham of Meadville, Mississippi, bought Skipas Gold Star in 2003, shortly after the death of her father. The yearling filly was in poor body condition when Pamela purchased her, but she poured her time and love into the mare, doing hours of groundwork each day.

“I needed this mare, because my dad had died,” Pamela says. “I had a rough time. It was the first death in the family, and we were very close.

“Then my mom got breast cancer, and my husband, Derrell, fell and shattered several bones in his leg. Three days later, my little sister, who had taken my dad’s death pretty hard, overdosed.”

Pamela’s 30-year-old sister, Anna Troulliet, who lives with Pamela, recovered. Their mother, Patricia, overcame her breast cancer, but died from diabetes-related complications in January.

Things hit bottom for Pamela when she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2005. She had a port surgically placed in her chest to receive medicine and began an aggressive round of chemotherapy. She lost all 62 inches of her beautiful “cowgirl hair” on her third day of treatment.

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With all that had happened with her family and then her own health crisis, Pamela was overwhelmed. She stopped spending time with her beloved “Star” and retreated to her room.

“I stayed there for three weeks and wouldn’t get up,” Pamela says. “Anna told me I had to get up, but I told her, ‘I’m dying, why worry about it?’

“She told me again that I needed to get up and get back with my horse, because Star thinks I’ve abandoned her.”

Pamela finally agreed to go outside and check on Star, who Anna said was running anxiously around the pasture.

“My horse came out of the blue and ran up to me going 90 miles an hour with dust flying behind her in the field,” Pamela remembers. “She ran up to me and placed her head in the middle of my chest where the port was, where I was still full of stitches.”

During that emotional moment, Pamela realized she had many things to live for, and Star was one of them. She joined Thundering Hooves, a riding club in Natchez, Mississippi, where she met 71-year-old Gail Voss Lewis, who told her about AQHA’s Horseback Riding Program. Pamela quickly joined the program.

“I thought it would be something good to do with my time,” Pamela says. “Something to be involved in to show people you can get out there and achieve things, even if you have some kind of disability.”

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Pamela began logging her hours trail riding, riding along the sandbars near her home and riding at the Thundering Hooves monthly horse shows.

Sometimes riding was painful, but Pamela refused to let the pain keep her from riding, even if it meant giving up the speed events she loved as a youth for new events like western pleasure and showmanship.

Pamela received her 5,000-hour award in 2006. She also won the “Win Some for Me” award for the Thundering Hooves member who won the most points in one year on one horse.

More important for Pamela than the awards is the healing power that working with horses brings.

“I think horses have a spirit,” Pamela says. “They feel what you feel. They know when you are going through something.”

“This riding program is so good for people,” she says. “If you have an illness, don’t let it get you down. Get involved with horses. Maybe a friend has a horse that they would love to be loved. Just keep believing. Keep riding, petting, hugging, brushing – whatever you can do. Horses do understand.”