January 2018 - Horse People: Alex Henry
Written by by Kim F. Miller
Friday, 29 December 2017 21:47

Lost lower leg is a surmountable obstacle for inspiring young rider.

by Kim F. Miller

Warming up for a recent clinic, 15 year old Alex Henry impressed her coach by systematically testing her horse’s responses to her aids. At one point, the coach encouraged more left leg. She applied more pressure with her left thigh and gave extra taps of the whip on that side, where her lower leg would fall if she still had it. Alex lost that to bone cancer two years ago, but she never lost her desire and drive as an equestrian.


Alex, Roxanne, Doug & David Henry

The November event was a Michel Assouline Symposium hosted by Ride On Therapeutic Horsemanship in Chatsworth. It was only Alex’s second Para Dressage event. She’s actually an eventer and came to the clinic directly from completing her first recognized competition, the Horse Trials at the Fresno Country Horse Park. There, she completed the Introductory division aboard her own horse, Bella Mia Apache, aka “Kiowa.”

She and the 9 year old Thoroughbred/Appaloosa cross were third in dressage, with a 32.4 score, double clear in stadium jumping and finished cross-country with a few hiccups, including time faults. “Kiowa was unsure about some of the jumps and with so much open space where they can really get excited, I played it safe and went a little slow,” the young rider explains.

She also wowed the able-bodied riders and spectators.

Alex with coach Carmela Richards

Alex rides with Carmela Richards’ Oak Creek Training Stables in the Sacramento area’s Granite Bay, and she’s a familiar competitor at the nearby venue, Eventful Acres. But the Horse Trials were a bigger deal and far from her home turf.  “When people first see me, I don’t think they feel bad for me,” says Alex. “I think they wonder how I’m doing it and they think it’s super hard. I think I’m showing that all my hard work has made it easy to ride with one leg. I ride five days a week, for an hour every day, and it’s not just me learning. My horse is learning with me, too.”

A Bump Gone Bad

The curly-haired girl’s love for horses was clear before she could speak, says her dad Doug Henry. He and Alex’s mom Roxanne decided to see how serious she was by gifting riding lessons for her eighth birthday. It was a serious case, indeed. Since then, the family has never looked back, even with the odyssey that began when a then 12 year old Alex bumped her leg on a door jam at home.

“Her pain tolerance is extremely high and she was never a cry baby,” Doug explains. “When that brought tears to her eyes, we thought, ‘Wait… What happened?’” There was no bleeding or swelling, and Alex continued her many activities: soccer, basketball, swimming and riding, with no complaints. Six weeks later, Roxanne noticed a raised spot on her daughter’s leg, which Alex said had been there since she hit her knee on the door jam.

The next day, they scheduled a noon appointment with their pediatrician. By 4 pm, the doctor informed them he suspected osteosarcoma. A day later, the Henrys were referred to an oncologist and, two weeks later, biopsy results confirmed the diagnosis and chemotherapy was scheduled. “In five weeks, our lives were turned upside-down,” Doug recounts.

Alex with clinician Michel Assouline. Photo: Kim F. Miller

According to the American Cancer Society, osteosarcoma is the most common type of bone cancer. Children, young adults and, especially, teens, constitute the majority of cases. It can be very aggressive and is particularly dangerous because it’s hard to detect. “By the grace of God and a little bit of clumsiness, we found it early,” says Doug. “Often, it’s found in the process of diagnosing sports injuries.”

After chemotherapy, Alex had a decision to make: amputation, a knee replacement or a few even less appealing surgical alternatives. Doug and Roxanne researched all options in detail, explained them to Alex and left the decision to her. Like everything else, that wasn’t easy. “As parents, we were scared to death to put that choice to a 12-year-old. We wondered: Can she wrap her head around the next 50 or 60 years?” Doug says.

The knee replacement route likely included a new knee every eight to 10 years, with the attendant recovery and rehab, and a risk of complications that correlate to the risk of whatever activities the patient pursues. The Henrys didn’t attempt to influence Alex’s decision, but were relieved when she chose amputation. “She said, ‘If I can’t ride my horse and continue to jump and event, I don’t want to keep my leg’,” Doug relays.


Alex and Kiowa in action in Fresno.

Back In The Saddle

After chemotherapy and the amputation, Alex’s first challenge was recovering her energy and strength for regular life. Frequent visits to Oak Creek Training Stables, to at least hang out with the horses and her friends, were an important part of her therapy.

The Make-A-Wish Foundation provided a big emotional boost in granting Alex’s wish for a horse. Carmela welcomed the task of finding the right one, the first of many challenges the trainer wholeheartedly embraced to keep the rider she’d coached since 9 in the saddle and on track to fulfill her riding dreams.

“It was a little bit challenging to find a horse that’s appropriate for a 12 year old amputee, especially when the first directive is color!” Carmela laughs. Having ridden one of Oak Creek’s lesson horses, an Appaloosa Pony of America, Alex made a Make-A-Wish request that specified a horse of the same color.

Alex finishes the 2016 San Diego Triathlon’s one-mile swim with an assist from Challenged Athlete Foundation friends.

Carmela found Kiowa in Paso Robles. Although Make-A-Wish was very generous, there was a gap between the purchase price and the budget. They received permission to add donations and to direct funds allotted for related costs to the purchase instead. They asked if the seller could get a tax write-off in the amount of a price discount. “We worked all the angles we could to make it work,” the trainer recounts. “When push came to shove, we didn’t have quite enough and Make-A-Wish stepped up to cover the rest. They were amazing.”

And so it was that Kiowa awaited her new owner at a public surprise ceremony at the K-Street Mall in Sacramento. Her chemo-bald head covered in a bandana and surrounded by friends, the then 13-year-old, wheelchair-bound Alex greeted her new partner with happy tears.

Carmela was game to keep coaching Alex. “I wasn’t a Para Equestrian coach, but I’m good at riding lessons and I said we’d figure it out.” With extensive research and experimentation, they have. The investment of time and effort is gratifying because it’s more than matched by Alex.

“She is a horsewoman,” Carmela continues. “She’s very conscientious about her horse’s care. She’s a Pony Clubber and it’s 50/50 care and riding at our barn, so she has that background.”

Once Alex regained her basic strength and health, the riding challenges awaited. Balance is the biggie with a leg amputation. “When she first started riding again, she was pulling her saddle to the side,” Carmela remembers. Having a way to get body weight into the left side of the horse would be critical to balance and a secure position, the trainer recognized. That led her to using a grazing muzzle with foam padding and affixing the improvised device to the left side of the saddle. By putting what’s left of her leg into her “short stirrup,” Alex can comfortably put weight into that side. Along with the adapted saddle, she has dispensation to use her slightly longer-than-regulation crop, with a slight curve in it, to compete in open shows.

Alex’s pre-cancer riding experience served her well when she resumed. She knew what to do, so it was a question of how to communicate with Kiowa and having the strength and timing needed.

Alex & Kiowa dressed in their purple.

Simultaneously, she had to teach Kiowa to understand her unique aids. Along with the whip tap where the lower leg would be, the seat plays a bigger part in go-forward cues.

Fitness and outdoor activity were always priorities for the Henry family, which includes 13 year old brother, David, and they became even more so for Alex. Up until recently, she’d been splitting her time between adapted swimming and riding. The core strength from swimming has helped her riding, but she’s recently decided to give it up in favor of more time in the saddle.

During the Para Dressage symposium in November, coach Michel noted clear improvement in Alex’s position and effectiveness since he’d given her a lesson in July. She likes what she’s learned about Para Dressage so far. A longtime coach of the multi-gold medal winning British team, Michel indicated she has a bright future in the sport. Her heart, however, remains with eventing.

Before cancer, Alex was a bold and brave rider. After the amputation, it took time to regain that. “At first, I was very weak and fragile. As I got stronger with swimming and riding, I started to trust myself that I’m not going to fall off.” She has fallen off, of course, and survived.

Alex celebrated two years of being cancer-free in November. This month, she plans to compete in a Combined Test comprised of dressage and show jumping. She’s targeting more recognized three-days this year and hopes to move to higher levels with Kiowa in the future. “She’s an all-around awesome horse,” Alex reports. “It took her a bit of time to get used to my whip, but now she is familiar with it and understands it. She listens to me really well.”

Super Supporters

Make-A-Wish is one of several supporters to impact the Henrys’ new life.  There’s a brigade of buddies from the barn and beyond who’ve outfitted Alex and Kiowa with all manner of gear in her favorite shade--purple. “Blankets, shipping boots, brushes, lunge lines… you name it,” Carmela notes.

Barn girl besties from Oak Creek Training Stables.

The Challenged Athlete Foundation was instrumental in Alex’s embrace of life without a lower left leg. “At first, I was a little self-conscious, then I met people that were like me and became more confident in myself.” She paid it forward when she met another amputee rider at a Para show this past summer. The rider had been using a belt around her waist to secure her position, and was intrigued to try the “short stirrup” saddle modification that Carmela designed for Alex.

She’s happy to be an inspiration to anybody. “If they have a missing leg, I want them not to be scared and to embrace it. Even if they don’t ride, I want to help people do whatever they want to do.”


Clinic host Ride On Therapeutic Riding Center is an International Para-Equestrian Dressage Center of Excellence. The visiting clinician, Michel Assouline, coached British riders to multiple team and individual gold medals in international Para Dressage competition. He recently joined the United States Equestrian Federation as Head of Para-Equestrian Coach Development and a High Performance Consultant.