“Horses are healers,” explained Elizabeth, a thin woman who carries herself with the grace and confidence of a dancer. Over the last twenty years, she has ridden off and on at Hoofbeats, where horses have been a constant joy and a reliable comfort through many medical challenges and, recently, the kind of irreparable wound worse than anything physical – the sudden death of her 24-year-old son, Hunter. “The horses, they have empathy,” she said.
Her voice is low and watery and sounds as if it has traveled over many miles. A neurological disorder causes her vocal cords to spasm, making it difficult to speak above a whisper. Her smile is wide and friendly, and she constantly asks insightful of questions and expresses compassion so tenderly. A deep feeler and an artist, she has immersed herself in painting, music, architecture, and dancing throughout her entire life. “I’m driven for excellence,” she said of her many interests.
Born and raised in Rockbridge County, she attended liberal arts colleges in Virginia and North Carolina and practiced landscape architecture. As a young woman in her 20’s, she moved to North Carolina, where her youngest son, Hunter, was born. Even as a toddler, Hunter shared his mother’s passion for music. Elizabeth would often perform with friends and bring her young son with her. But she had spent too long away from her home. “Every time I move from Rockbridge County, I have this chemical mourning. It’s this pull. I belong here in these mountains,” she said. Elizabeth and Hunter moved back to Rockbridge County, where she began riding horses.
As a child, she had always wanted to ride, but it was not until she was in her early 30’s that she had the opportunity. She fell in love. The horses she rode then – Coco, Johnny, and Irish – they were like family to her. She was already friends with Carol and with many in the Hoofbeats community, and so she rode there on and off since the center opened in 1995.
Hunter loved riding too. He explored the wooded trails with his mom and chased cows on a Morgan pony that shuffled her short legs so fast she seemed to glide. “It was absolutely adorable,” Elizabeth said, smiling. “He rode until he was 12 or 13 years old – until it wasn’t cool anymore. But he always said he wanted to get back into it.”
In his teen years, music was Hunter’s passion. “Heavy metal, punk, drums, fiddle, banjo, classical, saxophone… Whatever he wanted to try, I encouraged him,” said Elizabeth. “He lived such a full life.”
Hunter was in New Orleans, playing music for Mardis Gras, where he died suddenly at just 24-years-old. Before he left for that last trip, Elizabeth said he came back from the car three times to hug her goodbye. Just a few months later, she lost her brother and another close friend, both of whom she had relied on as emotional support. The grief, she said, was catastrophic and overwhelming.
Amidst this, she reached out for the community of people and horses that could feel her pain. When the phone at Hoofbeats rang, Carol immediately recognized Elizabeth’s quiet voice on the other line that asked, “Can I come out for a ride?” Carol knew it was the horses that could help Elizabeth to grieve and to heal.
Elizabeth came out to the center that day and went on a trail ride, and then continued riding every week of the 2015 summer session. Not only was she wrestling with grief, but also with several chronic medical conditions. Because of her severe hypoinsulinemia, she experiences rapid fatigue that can sometimes feel like shock. She has also struggled with autoimmune issues for almost her whole adult life.
These conditions limit her activities and put her at risk for frequent medical emergencies. Despite these, Elizabeth stays active and positive. “Of my challenges, I say, ‘So what?’”
Physically and emotionally, the horses at Hoofbeats have helped her heal and thrive in many ways, she said. “No matter how I feel, when I get on a horse I feel 100 percent better. It’s a necessity.”