By Britney Grover
Portraits by Kristie Nichols
Brent and Lisa Workman like to joke that things always seem to happen around Lisa’s birthday. On her birthday in 2016, Lisa was battling end-stage liver disease that had progressed into developing cancerous lesions, and she had been on the transplant list for nearly four years.
Brent was taking her dog for a walk with her brother and father when Brent smelled smoke coming from of a neighbor’s house. Then they heard screaming: The house was on fire and the neighbor was trapped inside.
Without a second thought, Brent rescued the 68-year-old woman before her house burned to the ground. He was awarded a Citizen Valor Award from the fire department as well as a Certificate of Special Congressional Recognition for his selfless actions. Two years later, there was more life threatening than life saving on Lisa’s birthday.
Things were going well: She was healthy with a new liver, she and Brent were about to be married and their hunter-jumper business was thriving. The next day, Brent had his first grand mal seizure.
“We’ve definitely had ups and downs, from everything being on top to everything being as low as it could be,” Lisa said. “We went from buying grand prix horses and packing for a cruise where we were going to get married, to finding out that Brent had brain cancer.”
Through all the highs and lows, one thing has remained constant — and life-saving, in more ways than one.
“The horse world has played a huge role in everything,” Lisa said. “I say we’re fortunate, because we’ve had some bad luck but …”
“With the people around us, we’re very lucky,” Brent finished for her. “We’ve had some great, great people around us, great friends in the horse world from California to Canada to Florida.”
Without their connections in the horse world, the Workmans’ West Houston Hunter Jumpers might not have survived. Brent definitely would not have.
“We try to look at the bright side of things,” Lisa said. “It makes you realize what really matters. It’s not the class where you were late on a lead change or had a bad distance; that’s not what really matters. It comes down to the horses and the people.”
Made for Each Other
Originally from Connecticut, Lisa grew up around the Thoroughbred racehorses her uncle bred. After her uncle kept asking her parents when she would be ready for her first pony, Lisa got one when she was 7 — and still has the pony over 30 years later.
Lisa competed through the ponies and went on to do equitation and junior jumpers in addition to hunters. Having dealt with a series of autoimmune diseases her entire life, she got sick in college and had to take a break from horses. When she returned to the show ring, she met Brent.
“I met Lisa at the horse shows; she was competing against me and other riders and we got to know each other,” Brent said.
“I actually don’t remember him that much,” Lisa admitted, laughing. “He remembers me better than I remember him. But looking back after we got together, I could remember, ‘Oh yeah, remember that class where I beat you?’”
Brent has been riding as long as he can remember, starting with his mother’s backyard trail horses. Always after the adrenaline rush, Brent started doing Western speed events, but after an accident that cost his horse’s life he switched gears and got into long-distance riding.
Long-distance led to eventing, which is how he discovered a passion for show jumping. “My parents always tried to put me with the best people they could find, and it progressed to where my father and I would go down to the Winter Equestrian Festival and I would train with whoever I could talk into taking me in and letting me ride with them,” Brent recalled.
He worked with Margie Goldstein for a couple of winters, making it to the Young Riders Championships and competing on his zone team. He became a working student and groom for Anne Kursinski, then struck out as a professional by the time he was 25.
“It just progressed from there almost like an addiction,” he said. “I wanted to be riding and competing and showing at as high a level as I could possibly get to.”
When she started seeing Brent, Lisa helped shape his program by repurposing some of his jumpers that were better suited as hunters. West Houston Hunter Jumpers got a new, elevated life.
In 2014, Brent and Lisa built and stained the stalls in their show barn entirely on their own — the only “investor” was Brent’s Harley. “I would do lessons during the day and build stalls one by one the rest of the evening,” Brent said. “I had to sell my Harley to pay for all the wood. Sometimes you have to make sacrifices, you know.”
Though Brent still hopes to have another bike someday, the sacrifice has been well worth it. Not only has their program blossomed, it’s helped them build a network of friends and clients, amazing people who helped save their lives.
Canter to Cancer
Lisa was born with an autoimmune condition that worsened while she was in law school. Shortly after graduating and meeting Brent, her liver got progressively worse. As time went on, she was in and out of the hospital frequently. Her liver developed cancerous lesions, and she was put on the transplant list.
Brent and Lisa hoped to get married, but wanted to wait until after Lisa got a new liver. They ended up waiting four years; Lisa’s transplant finally happened on June 18, 2016, and they got engaged a year later to the day.
Things were going well by March 2018. Lisa was healthy and managing Katy Equine Clinic in addition to her role with West Houston Hunter Jumpers. They had an investor in the program and Bernie Traurig, who had trained Brent remotely for a year and become a good friend, was going to marry Brent and Lisa at sea.
On March 2, they visited Heineking Show Stables to look at some grand prix prospects. The next day was Lisa’s birthday, and Brent began to feel sick. The day after, they went to the mall to get clothes for their wedding cruise with Bernie.
When Brent first said he had to sit down because he didn’t feel well, Lisa had the fleeting thought that it was awfully convenient. But Brent started looking awful; he could barely drive home.
That evening, he had his first grand mal seizure.
“We ended up having to scrap the trip with Bernie. We spent the next week in the hospital and when we left we went to the courthouse and got married,” Lisa said. “The doctors said the tumor was inoperable and gave him two years to live.”
While he was in the hospital that week, however, Dr. William Stone from Katy Equine Clinic, where Lisa worked, came to visit. He took a copy of Brent’s MRI, uploaded it into the clinic’s imaging software and sent it to a client — a dressage rider who also happened to be a world renowned tumor surgeon.
His message was, “Stop everything; don’t let them do the biopsy. Get him discharged from the hospital, come see me and I will operate.”
In June 2018, Brent underwent an awake craniotomy. “That was a very interesting situation and experience,” he understated.
Because they were operating around the speech and visual areas of his brain, Brent was supposed to be identifying images held up by a person in front of him. Instead, he was deep in conversation.
“My surgeon had gone riding earlier in the day,” Brent said. “He and I ended up discussing during surgery the riding lesson he’d had that morning, and some issues he was having with his horses and lead changes.”
Relationships Over Rounds
After his surgery, Brent was restricted in what he was able to do and where he was able to go — a stark contrast to his nonstop trainer lifestyle.
“The only thing I was allowed to do was, when we had a local A show come through I would talk Lisa into taking me to at least watch the grand prix,” Brent said. “I wanted to get out to the horse show, to walk around, see people and just feel halfway normal — but that was really difficult to do, and sometimes it was too much for me and I’d pay the price; after the grand prix I’d look like the guy that was up there drinking way too much of the free alcohol because I’m over there hugging the trash can because I was on chemo that week.”
Though she was too sick to go through chemo herself, Lisa’s medical history gave her a rare empathy for what Brent went through. “In the beginning, he would say, ‘You don’t know what it’s like to not be able to go out and do what you love,’ and I would say, ‘Honey, I’m the one person who does know what it feels like,’” she said. “We understand each other to a degree that most couples probably don’t, because of what we’ve gone through together.”
Brent and Lisa were there for each other, and the equestrian community was there for them. For nearly a year while Brent was sick and recovering, one of their clients, now a great friend, paid their help so they wouldn’t have to pay out of pocket.
The Pin Oak Charity Horse Show held a trainers equitation challenge, where riders and owners sponsored their trainers with whatever entry fee they chose and all the proceeds were given to the Workmans — roughly $34,000.
“We weren’t married, so Brent didn’t have insurance at the time of his first seizure, and we had the farm to take care of and we had to get another trainer on board, all these things we hadn’t had to worry about,” Lisa said. “They saved us — the horse community saved us.”
With continued support from their friends in the horse world, including fellow trainers who are happy to step in when needed, the Workmans continue to adapt and find their new normal — they even took the long-awaited cruise with Bernie and Cate Traurig in January.
Brent’s teenage children from a previous marriage, 16-year-old Brielle and 14-year-old Brendan, have handled both Lisa’s and Brent’s illnesses and hospital time with flying colors. Brielle enjoys competing in barrel racing, which Lisa and Brent are happy to support. While hockey is more Brendan’s sport, he’s a good help on the farm and enjoys caring for Lisa’s aging pony, who’s like the family dog.
Lisa has been doing most of the competitive riding while Brent has been recovering, but he’s working back toward the ring and actively training. Before COVID-19 hit, they were going to at least one competition per month.
The Workmans instill in their students the same values they’ve cherished in their horse community: sportsmanship, horsemanship, teamwork and supporting one another no matter what. They know it’s more about the relationships than the rounds.
Brent is mostly stable, but has had to learn to be careful. Breakthrough seizures are still a risk, especially when he gets overly worked up, stressed or excited — like when he was waiting for the results after a student’s good round at last year’s Pin Oak Charity Horse Show one moment and waking up in the ER the next.
“As a trainer, I get in that mentality where I’m going and going and going at the horse show and more focused on what rider needs to be in which ring,” Brent admitted. “Then I go at it like I’ve always gone at it.”
“The saying, ‘You need to take care of yourself’ has a different meaning with us,” Lisa said. “It has real consequences, not just a headache.”
Either Brent or Lisa could face another bout with cancer at any time, but they’re staying focused on enjoying what they have right now — and they have the experience to face whatever comes.
“The horses are great distractors, and healers,” Lisa said. “You don’t have time to be worried about yourself when you have 22 horses and they all have their own agendas. You have a million different things to deal with at a farm, and it keeps us in the day-to-day.
“It used to be he was the one taking care of me, because I was the one going to the horse show and paying the price for it,” Lisa added. “It’s definitely flipped. Things happen for a reason, and we’ve just learned to take care of each other.”
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Photos by Kristie Nichols, moonfyrephotography.com