Horse, riding student inspire others

Horse, riding student inspire others
Oakland Tribune,
Jan 13, 2009 by Aaron Morrison

Janet Alexander took a well-rested Cocoa out of her Lafayette stable last week and led her to a gated arena for a brief warm-up. That day was especially exciting for Alexander, and perhaps for Cocoa, because it was the first day back to work for the dark-brown Morab mare since undergoing major surgery. Cocoa’s occupation: therapy horse at the Xenophon Therapeutic Riding Center in Orinda.

Alexander, program director for Xenophon, set up a special riding lesson for 15-year-old Jenna Legallet at Henson’s Arabians in Lafayette; the Orinda facility is closed for the winter.

“I was really excited when my mom told me I was going to ride Cocoa today,” said Legallet, who is living with Noonan syndrome, a disease that causes congenital heart malformation, short stature and other varied physical disabilities.

In no time, Legallet was checking for rocks lodged between the shoes and walls of Cocoa’s hoofs, and going through other lesson routines.

“A good rider is supposed to check for rocks,” Legallet said, demonstrating her recall of what Alexander, her riding instructor, taught her.

The lesson marked Xenophon’s and Cocoa’s returns to the saddle after a tough 2008, which saw risky surgery on its star horse and the loss of a beloved riding student, Anthony Fusaro.

Cocoa and Anthony, posthumously, received honors in December from the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association at its annual conference in Connecticut.

Cocoa was named the association’s horse of the year, and Anthony its youth equestrian of the year. Additionally, center volunteer Ken Bergstresser, of Berkeley, was named NARHA Region 11 volunteer of the year.

“It’s very rare that you have three awards to one (riding) program,” said Judy Lazarus, Xenophon founder and executive director.

Xenophon, a nonprofit organization founded 15 years ago, was born of Lazarus’ desire to help disabled children through therapy with animals. Lazarus has an autistic son.

Years of work turned into a fledging program with a yearlong waiting list for riding lessons.
Anthony’s father, Robert Fusaro, of Albany, informed Lazarus in 2003 that his son — diagnosed with cancer at age 8 — might not make it another year. Lazarus said she and her staff got Anthony into lessons immediately; Robert Fusaro said the timing and flexibility of Xenophon staff was invaluable.

“He far exceeded the time we thought he had,” Robert said. “It clearly extended his life. The thing that was always motivating him was the prospect of riding again.”

During an Orinda benefit for Xenophon in 2005, then-12-year-old Anthony spoke about how the center helped bolster his morale.

“I felt like a wimp until I went to Xenophon,” Anthony told the gathering, describing months of recovery from chemotherapy, being bedridden or using a wheelchair. “From the first time I rode Patience, I have felt very connected to her. The look in her eyes tells me she is as excited to see me as I am to see her.”

Anthony’s effect on the staff and other students at the center was invaluable to Lazarus. His sense of humor and spirit were an inspiration to “everyone that knew him.”

Anthony’s illness kept him from riding during his final months, but he had set his example. Anthony progressed from “wheelchair to cane, and from surcingle (padded strap) to saddle to independent riding,” said volunteer Denise Boucher.

Added Lazarus, “If I could live my life the way he did, I would consider that a very fulfilled life.”
Anthony succumbed to his illness May 20. Two months earlier, at a Xenophon gala, Anthony proclaimed that “there’s more to me than just cancer.”

“The great thing about Xenophon is that it doesn’t matter what’s wrong with you — and I think there’s something wrong with everyone,” Anthony said. “What’s important is that you have fun.”

As for Xenophon’s prized horse Cocoa, her service to the center – – seven years and counting — is marked by her extraordinary connection with the students. Lazarus says Cocoa adjusts her energy level according to the disability of the rider.

“If she has a child on her who is very unbalanced and unable to sit up straight, she will slow her pace,” Lazarus said. “I have never seen these characteristics in all the years that I have been involved with horses.”

When Cocoa underwent surgery last year, doctors were not optimistic to do the type of surgery Cocoa needed at age 21. “Now she’s 100 percent back in action,” Lazarus said.

Cocoa’s improved condition was evident to instructor and student last week.

“Horses are pleasers,” Alexander said. “(Cocoa) loves her job and likes working with the students.”

Cocoa also loves Mrs. Pasture’s equine cookies, from a Walnut Creek-based company. Legallet held her hand out flat and Cocoa took the cookie.

“You are my favorite girl,” Legallet said, kissing and stroking Cocoa’s head.