Woman saddles up with hospice wish

Photos by Traci Westcott/The Herald
Joyce Martin of Hillham, center, feeds Jax a treat alongside riding instructor Jennifer Branch at Freedom Reins Therapeutic Riding Center in Jasper on Thursday. 


JASPER — Joyce Martin wanted one more ride.

Horses have surrounded the 82-year-old woman her entire life. She cared for and showed them as a child. She met her husband, Larry, through the animals while living in Kansas City. Photographs of the couple riding now adorn a wall in their Hillham home.

Thursday afternoon at Freedom Reins Therapeutic Riding Center in Jasper, fighting against crippling arthritis and multiple sclerosis, Joyce wrapped her legs around a horse for the first time in decades.

Slipping her feet into the saddle’s stirrups, a smile beamed across her face as she returned to her happy place.

“You made my day,” she told ranch instructors later in her visit. “You really did. It’s a good old world again.”

Joyce’s wish was granted through a collaboration between Freedom Reins and Heart to Heart Hospice, a local organization that sends caretakers to her residence.

She didn’t feel comfortable taking the quarter horse she mounted for a stroll on Thursday, but she’s eager to return and try again. And that is a real possibility.

Joyce Martin of Hillham looks at a picture of herself riding while visiting Freedom Reins Therapeutic Riding Center in Jasper on Thursday. Joyce treasures the photos, even bringing them with her to hospital stays, and was quick to show them off to the riding center staff.

“It’s not the kind that goes ahead and just debilitates you and you just go down, and down, and down, and then you die,” Larry said of Joyce’s MS in a phone interview after their trip. “This is the type that torments you all your life. And you’ll have little episodes with it, but you don’t really get any worse, and you make it through for a good, long life.”

Her wits are still sharp. She cracked jokes that warranted belly laughs and shared stories about her equestrian days throughout her visit to the sprawling range. When Larry hopped on for a stroll around the facility’s indoor arena, Joyce teased him from her wheelchair.

“He’s chicken!” she exclaimed with a laugh. “You’ve got somebody leading the horse!”

Later, she ribbed: “Oh, Larry. What happened to your posture? Get your back straight! Keep those feet in!”

Jennifer Tarvin, a licensed practical nurse with Heart to Heart, was instrumental in getting Joyce back in a barn. Joyce expressed her desire to trot once again when Tarvin visited her about two weeks ago.

“She said, ‘I’d like to ride a horse one more time before I die,’” Tarvin said, fighting back tears. After a few calls, it was a go.

Many of the hospice’s patients can’t verbalize or identify their wishes. But Joyce shared exactly what she wanted. All the Heart to Heart personnel who know her were instantly drawn to her electric personality.

Joyce and Larry Martin of Hillham look at the horses at Freedom Reins Therapeutic Riding Center in Jasper on Thursday. Joyce and Larry met each other through riding and showing horses. 

“She’s just a hoot,” said Kaylea Mulder, a home health aide certified nursing assistant with the hospice. “I don’t think I even said a couple words, and she just loved me right off the bat. She just makes me smile.”

Mulder noticed an instant elevation in Joyce’s mood on Thursday just from being at Freedom Reins, adding that she was “doing 10 times better than she does at home.”

Before she left, an aura of optimism radiated from Joyce’s tiny body as she petted a miniature pony, hand-fed treats to a couple of horses and thanked personnel for making her dream a reality.

Tarvin knew the experience would fill Joyce with joy. Seeing that joy made everyone lucky enough to be there swell with happiness.

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