BY Julia Hanssen
In 2019 our lives were shaken by a heart-wrenching diagnosis. My dad, the anchor of our family, was diagnosed with Early Onset Alzheimer’s. This unexpected news sent shockwaves through our world, forever changing our family’s course. Amidst this heartache, it was the presence of horses that became our saving grace.
For as long as I can remember, I have always loved horses. My parents were dumbfounded as to where this passion came from given we had absolutely no tie to horses. But, through my persistence, I was promised riding lessons once I had turned 8-years-old. Thinking
I would surely forget by then, soon 8 rolled around and the first thing I asked them was, “When am I riding?!”
Upon starting lessons, I was hooked. My dream had finally come true, I was a real horseback rider!
To all of our surprise, my dad was just as committed to this new endeavor as I was.
We quickly bonded over this new sport, reading horse books, educating ourselves and learning all there was to learn about these incredible animals. My dad was absolutely my biggest supporter and he would do anything to ensure I was able to continue on in my dream of competing and owning a horse. His unwavering commitment went beyond emotional support, as he provided the financial backing necessary to fuel my passion.
As the years went on, my sister also started riding, officially making us a “horse family”. We were fully committed to everything equestrian. My dad was at every horse show, watched our lessons, talked through our goals, and was there every step of the way from helping us groom, to cleaning tack, doing grain, and even eventually getting in the saddle himself here and there.
Through growing up in this sport, starting college, and then ultimately starting my career, horses and my dad remained a constant in my life – I couldn’t imagine my life without either.
Everything changed in the winter of 2019 when I received the worst news I could have ever imagined. My mom sat my sister and I down and started with, “Dad is sick.” My heart sank. I couldn’t breathe. I knew what she was about to say. I had observed my dad stuggling with simple tasks like finding his car keys or handling transactions at restaurants. I had become his crutch, compensating for his forgetfulness, hoping against hope that my deepest fear would not become my reality.
At the age of 58, my father was officially diagnosed with Early Onset Alzheimer’s, forever altering the course of our lives. He was at the pinnacle of his career, yet now unable to continue working. The weight of the diagnosis hung heavy over us and uncertainty clouded our future. I was so scared, but could not get over how scared he must be. It was as if my heart shattered into a million pieces.
Amidst the anguish and the gradual acceptance of our new reality, one thing remained – our connection to horses. For me, time in the saddle became a lifeline, a sanctuary during the most challenging moments. And now, with his newfound freedom, my dad yearned to experience the therapeutic power of riding for himself.
After all of these years being given such an incredible opportunity in horses by my dad, it was finally my time to give something back to him. I knew that my horse Pico would be the best choice for my dad’s new adventure in riding. Pico patiently took my dad to his first trot, canter and eventually to the jumps. I had never seen my dad so excited about something, and so very committed to riding. He loved Pico and was so grateful for such a partner to help him enjoy this time in the saddle.
Everyone at the barn was supportive of my dad’s new equestrian journey and it brought tears to my eyes to see my horse taking my dad around, giving him this sense of freedom.
Upon his diagnosis, he soon could no longer drive or do many things that were once so easy – his time at the barn and riding helped him feel independent and normal in a time where so much was taken from him.
As his disease began to progress, riding happened less often until eventually it was no longer an option for him to continue. He is now in a memory care facility, but he still perks up when we show him pictures of the horses or videos of him and Pico.
I am forever grateful for what my dad provided me with in this sport, and so glad I was able to give him a piece of that back. While my dad may not be the same person he once was, I will cherish these memories forever.
I will leave you with this: be kind, be patient and most importantly, be present. You never know what someone is going through privately.
I love you Dad, thank you for everything.
About the Author: A Las Vegas native, Julia Hanssen has grown up riding for most of her life, competing on the west coast. When she is not at the barn, she is working for an international marketing and influencer agency or spending time recording the equestrian podcast she is a part of with her two fellow horse gal pals (The 3 Stride Podcast). With her dad’s diagnosis, she is working to be an advocate for caregivers and anyone struggling with the impact of Alzheimer’s disease and to raise awareness for how much this disease affects so many people and situations. If you or anyone you know is looking to chat through anything please reach out to her!