California Riding Magazine • July, 2014

The Toughest Horse Girl
A Nine-Year Lesson in Bravery

by Joell Dunlap


Joell Dunlap, Gabriela Cellini and LeRoi. Photo by Paul Van Allen

"Courage is being scared to death and saddling up anyway." – John Wayne

Horse girls are rough and tumble. Horse girls are brave and tough. They learn early to suck it up and kick on. When working with an animal eight to 14 times your size, you'd better figure out quick if you have the moxie to stay the course.

I've seen little farm girls giggling while riding snorting broncs and I've seen trust fund daughters ride jumper courses with a broken wrist held together with vet wrap and two Advil.

A friend in her 60s played polo her whole life. The doctor told her that if she had another fall, her retinas would detach and she would be blind. She played anyway and went down hard on the field breaking her neck. After two months in the hospital she said "You know what?  My eyes are just fine!"

There's a Spanish proverb that says, "When I am on my horse, only God is taller than I." Horse girls don't fear what normal people fear. They fear confinement, they fear boredom. They crave the sun and wind on their face and strong muscles carrying them far and wide. They go to great lengths to feed their obsession.

Gabriela Cellini was a horse girl through and through. We first met when she was 17 years old and weighed 50 pounds. She traveled in a wheelchair powered by an aid. She couldn't talk without the help of a communicator and she couldn't bring the communicator to the barn. I learned to ask yes or no questions and she would respond with eye movement when she wasn't too tired. Our first ride lasted five minutes before she fell asleep exhausted but happy. She'd been told by two different facilities that she was "too disabled to ride." But she knew she needed to ride.

I tried leading a trusty horse with two side walkers, but she couldn't support herself and I realized that even with the strongest and the most attentive side walkers, it wasn't safe and it didn't give her the dignity of the ride she so richly deserved. 

Gabriela wanted to ride. I took a deep breath and a leap of faith and hopped up on the horse's back, took Gabriela in my arms and away we went.

That was nine years ago. In those intervening years, we had adventures. Gabriela loved to go fast and I worked hard to find and train horses that could deliver for her. We rode Feathers, Sugar, LeRoi, Cometa, Classica, Bob, Gigi and for the last couple of years – Django. If the arena was quiet and the horse steady, we would canter together.

Sometimes, she'd fall asleep in my arms and if I could, we just kept riding. There were days I told her all kinds of things and days I relished the quiet ride. She never complained unless we didn't do enough trotting or cantering. I'd get a Facebook message from her or a note from her mom or one of her aides telling me that rides were fine, but she really liked to "go fast." 

There were scares, like the time the horse tripped and went to his knees with Gabriela in my arms. I was horrified! Gabriela's aid looked at her face and her smile was as wide as Texas.  She loved it.
She loved our ranch manager Greg Crosta and when he could, he'd take her on a trail ride. It took Herculean strength to balance her body coming down hills and iron thighs to not squish her while going up them. Greg alone could do it.

Gabriela died Friday, losing her battle with a nasty flu. I wonder what I would have done differently if I'd known that her ride a couple of weeks ago was our last together.

Tomorrow I'm saddling up my red pony and galloping up the biggest hill I can find. I will hold Gabriela in my heart with me. It will have to do.
For nine years, Gabriela taught me about bravery. She knew a fall would kill her frail body, and she rode anyway. 

Toughest horse girl I'll ever know.

Author Joell Dunlap is the co-founder and executive director of Square Peg Ranch, a non-profit in Half Moon Bay that pairs horses who need a second chance with kids who know what it's like to be a Square Peg (mainly, kids on the autism spectrum). This article first appeared as a May 26 blogpost. Joell can be reached at joell@squarepegfoundation.org.