Herd Member | Lisa Dennis


My family has been through its fair share of adversity. Some might say we’ve experienced far more than what would be viewed as a fair share. I’m sure many of you readers can relate to this, as life definitely challenges us at times and does not balance what we experience with what we can handle at any given time. It is both the beauty and the darkness of life that we cannot control all that occurs or when we experience our greatest highs and our lowest lows.


My daughter Shelby, now 24 years old, has been a passionate horse lover since the tiny age of two. I vividly remember her choosing at that young age to play with my old Breyer horses that were in the toybox my three children shared. She gave her own new names to them, and created wonderful adventures for these horses. Oh how I loved watching her play with these old toys of my past, reminiscing with fondness about my memories playing with the same as a child!  At this point in my children’s lives, things were very good for the most part. They lived in a lovely home in a lovely community with both parents, and our financial stability allowed them a comfort they would enjoy for a number of years.


There were cracks in the façade, however. Smaller, more subtle shifts in the family dynamic occurred as a result of the marital troubles. While all three children were still home and too young yet for school, the conflicts escalated , some  impossible to hide from the children. Others could have been kept from them but unfortunately in dealing with our own pain, both my ex-husband and I allowed some of our troubles to be seen by the kids. I am sure that this impacted them.


 Fortunately, at this point they still had their friends, their pets, their home, and their activities, and both parents present in their lives. Both my sons continued with baseball, football, and hockey. My daughter, the youngest, was also involved in sports such as soccer and softball, however she did not show the same keenness for them that she showed for horses. From the ages of 2 through 4, she continued to ask when she would be able to ride one, so I began looking at options.


 I was skeptical of my chances of finding a trainer willing to take on a four-year-old as a student, however I’m nothing if not persistent. Most trainers said my daughter was too small/weak at this age to be able to manage a horse, or that they didn’t have any ponies in their program and she was too young to ride a full sized horse. “Come back to us when she’s 8” was a common refrain. Eventually I was fortunate enough to find a young trainer who was willing to give us a “trial run”.


Off we went straight from preschool once a week for riding lessons. It became immediately clear that Shelby was smitten, and there was no going back. How she looked forward to that riding day with enthusiasm any adult would envy! She would literally vibrate with excitement on the drive to the barn and fall asleep exhausted in her car seat on the way home. It was a step forward in her journey with horses from which there was no turning back, and she continued riding for this trainer for many years, competing in shows at the ripe old age of four. And she got her first horse, a beautiful black Arabian gelding, a gift from a time of financial stability.


As Robert Frost would say, “nothing gold can stay,” and this was certainly true for us as a family. When my children were 7, 9, and 11 years old their father had a massive stroke while playing hockey one evening, and the world they knew ended in one moment. They went to bed that night with a father who was active, hard-working and independent. They awoke the next morning to a father who was hospitalized and in critical condition, without any of us knowing whether or not he would survive. Thus began our journey as a family into a far darker period of time. To take a very complex story and shorten or simplify it, my children, their father and I went through a period of tremendous turmoil. While their father was able to finally come home after two months hospitalized and in rehabilitation, he was unable to work and I became the sole provider for the family along with the sole caregiver for all. Sadly, the prior issues within the marriage coupled with additional strain after the stroke ultimately ended the marriage and resulted in family separation.


Second stage in the downhill spiral of adversity was the change in financial situation for the family- not simply due to the stroke, or to becoming a single income household, or even to the divorce. While all of those factors contributed, ultimately the financial stability was decimated at the hands of our financial planner, my brother-in-law, someone we trusted without question. That trust was sadly misplaced. He was convicted of financial fraud for bilking his clients out of a grand total of almost 10 million dollars.  He served time for his crimes, did not have to repay the money stolen from his clients, and I lost the money invested after the divorce.  



What next? was a question I asked myself repeatedly at this point in our lives. I was uncertain about so many things, but one thing I knew for sure: I wanted to try to  keep my children in one of the activities that brought them so much joy, that allowed them to find themselves and be themselves, and that nurtured their soul. For the boys this was easier to achieve since it was possible to find affordable sporting equipment equipment second hand, and they both had no problem deciding on one favourite sport with which to continue. One chose football, the other hockey.  For my daughter, her one sport was riding- her passion, the most expensive activity, and the most difficult one to maintain. I feared for the potential emotional impact of selling the horse Shelby had grown to love and to view as her best friend.


Blessed with some good people on our side, the willingness of a barn owner to allow a nine-year-old child to begin working to help pay for board, and a lot of creative reconfiguring of financial management, we just barely managed to keep “heads above water” and the horse in our family. Shelby worked hard, it worked, and thank goodness it did.


Her horse Farley, and riding in general, became my daughter’s solace, safe place, and saviour. Through pre-teen and adolescent challenges of self-esteem, through feeling like you don’t fit in but always trying to be “the same” as others, through changes in friendships, through family trauma…through all these and more, my daughter found herself. Through the love for a horse, a passion and aptitude for riding, and with the support of her family, Shelby found comfort and confidence. She slowly came to value her personal traits, accept and take pride in her unique (and beautiful) appearance…curly hair and all, and follow her own path. She learned to “wear her stripes” with pride, not mask them.


There is not a moment where I ever regret the sacrifices I made to make it possible for my daughter to continue riding and for my sons to continue with the sports they enjoyed. Many, many people close to me worried about my unrealistic and financially irresponsible decision to keep a horse throughout the years of limited finances. Did it make life harder? You bet!! Did I always make the best decisions or manage the finances the best way possible? Absolutely not. But did my children learn to work for what they loved, make difficult decisions what to give up and what to keep in their lives, and rely on their family- their “herd”? Definitely.


I know my family is not unique in our experience. We all want the lives of those we love to be filled with happiness and free from trauma. We want our children to grow surrounded by acceptance and belonging. Life however doesn’t always allow us the easy path. Sometimes we need to create that path from scratch multiple times in our lives. We find resilience and inner strength in these times, and having a group of family, friends and mentors- our herd- to support us us on our journey makes all the difference.


The beauty of a herd is that it is both a community of similar beings and a group of individuals with their own unique personalities and appearances. Like zebras, no human is the same. It is up to each of us to find our people, our herd- a group where we belong and can proudly show our stripes. I think my family has found its herd, and I hope I have helped foster in my children a confidence to proudly wear their stripes for the world to see. I hope all of you find yours too. Remember, you are never alone.