By Veronica Green-Gott
Portraits by Kirsten Hannah
Every rider has a story, but some have a story so incredible that the reader can’t help but cry. Lisa Mooney’s story is about her horse Wilson, a blue-ribbon winning machine of a Thoroughbred who beat the odds. In 2016, he was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma and given three months to live. Lisa sold her house to pay for his radiation treatment. Altogether, he was anesthetized 22 times over the course of a month. His life, and his eye, was saved. The only sign that he conquered the odds is a patch of hair extending from his left eye, where the radiation treatment turned his once-chestnut coat white. When most people hear Wilson’s story, they assume that Lisa saved him. In reality, they saved each other.
Lisa grew up on the back of a horse. She started riding at her childhood home in Florida at the age of 5. Horses were a constant part of her life that she never expected to be without. Then, in 2007, her sister passed away from autoimmune liver failure. The stress of the event triggered the same genetic mutation in Lisa, which resulted in Addison’s Disease. Her adrenal glands stopped producing cortisol. Lisa was only 33 years old. She takes steroids every day to compensate for it, but that comes with its own side effects, including osteoporosis.
If Lisa were to break a bone or suffer any type of bodily trauma, her life could end. “If I did fall off and break a bone or had any kind of physiological trauma, I would have 15 minutes to get a shot of an injectable steroid, or I would be dead,” Lisa said. Logically, her doctor told her she should never ride again. The risk was too great. After hearing the news, Lisa couldn’t even look at a horse, it was just too painful. “Honestly, I didn’t want to see horses. I didn’t want to smell them. I didn’t want to be anywhere near them,” she said. “It was so hard to know that I couldn’t ride anymore.”
While it took her a year to get healthy after her initial diagnosis, she refused to accept that she couldn’t have a normal life. She rejected her doctor’s advice not to get a job and go on disability. Today, she’s a microbiologist living in North Carolina and working with Novartis on their gene cell therapy program.
The Saddle That Changed It All
Two years after her diagnosis, fate intervened. A co-worker’s young daughter rode horses and Lisa started talking to him about her adorable lead-line career. Eventually, the family gifted Lisa with an old saddle that they wanted to get out of their garage. “It was a beautiful Beval saddle,” Lisa said. “I used to ride in those and always loved them. I said I’d take it with the hope that it was a sign to start riding again someday, somehow.”
Little did Lisa know that the saddle would lead her straight to Wilson. The co-worker introduced her to their daughter’s trainer, Jen Bryant at Trademark Stables in Sanford, North Carolina. “That was how I found Jen, and I instantly connected with her. She made me feel safe,” Lisa said. “I told her that I couldn’t believe I hadn’t ridden in more than 10 years, between the diagnosis and going to college. I was terrified. I had lost all of the confidence that I had once had.”
While Lisa’s first lesson was on a sweet, gentle lesson pony named Dixie, Jen had a different horse in mind for Lisa from the start. “When I learned how to ride hunters growing up in Florida, it was ‘the less you do the better,’” Lisa said. “You don’t move your hips around, you keep your hands still, with a very gentle, soft hand.”
Jen knew that Wilson would appreciate Lisa’s riding style. Most trainers would hesitate to put a rider with a life-threatening condition on a Thoroughbred, but Jen had a gut feeling that Lisa and Wilson would bond. Wilson wasn’t the easiest horse but he had a gentle, sweet personality that Lisa instantly connected with.
They also had another thing in common: chronic health issues. When Lisa first met Wilson, he was on stall rest with a catheter sewn into his eye due to the removal of tumors on his cornea. His situation was one Lisa could relate to. Seeing him locked in his stall all by himself reminded her of all the time she had spent in a hospital bed without friends or family to support her. She took it upon herself to make sure Wilson knew he wasn’t alone.
“We instantly bonded,” Lisa said. “I know what it’s like, being in the hospital; you’re just stuck in a hospital bed and you can’t do normal things and you’re not surrounded by your family bringing you good snacks. I was so sensitive to how he couldn’t be turned out because he had a catheter in his eye.”
Lisa was smart. Like many women, she knew the way to Wilson’s heart was through his stomach. “I went out there every day, brought him cookies, took him to graze. I would go out there late at night and let him graze in the pasture.”
Getting Back in the Ring
The first time Lisa rode Wilson, she was still nervous, but thrilled to ride the horse she’d fallen in love with. “I was still pretty scared the first time I ever rode him,” Lisa said. “I was like, ‘Oh my, he’s like riding a cloud.’ He still had the catheter in his eye, but he was just so smooth and amazing.”
Still scared of falling off, Lisa half-leased Wilson for a while before his family decided it was time to sell him. “When I heard that they would sell him to me, I literally cartwheeled off of him, went to the bank, and drove to Jen’s house immediately. I said, ‘Here’s my check! Here’s my check!’” Lisa said, laughing. “I was so scared they would change their mind.”
While Wilson wasn’t a push button ride and would occasionally make his opinions known by bucking off some of the other riders in the barn, he was entirely different with Lisa. One of the only times Lisa ever fell off of Wilson, he worked hard to keep her safe.
In 2022, at age 48 and many years after her diagnosis, Lisa and 23-year-old Wilson were in the lead at the Equitation Final Cup at Triangle Farms C Finals, despite the fact that Lisa was “the oldest person in the ring.” They were called back for the final test, which consisted of just three fences. Lisa cantered up to the first fence and then accidentally pulled on the reins. “I would never have believed it if someone didn’t video it,” Lisa admitted. “But I went over his side when he stopped and he pushed his whole left side out so that I would slide down, instead of fall off. As soon as he knew my feet hit the ground, he took two steps forward to get me up on my feet.”
Forgetting all the people watching from the edge of the ring, Lisa just stood there and hugged his neck for several minutes. What none of those onlookers knew was that Wilson could have just saved her life. “That was worth more to me than any blue ribbon,” she said.
Lisa gives all the credit for their wins to the handsome chestnut Thoroughbred. Wilson knows how she’s feeling, and will lay down winning rounds if she’s sad, almost as if he knows she needs a pick-me-up. “I always put my hand on his neck before I go in the ring, just so he knows how I’m feeling,” Lisa said. “When my dad died, I was really upset and I couldn’t even focus. I put my hand against his neck and then he just took the reins. He laid down the most incredible trips, I didn’t even do anything. It’s just as though he’s like, ‘Oh, you need someone to cheer you up. Okay, here we go. We’re going to do two winning trips for you.’”
Even those onlookers who don’t know Lisa and Wilson personally can see the impact of their bond. A judge had just watched Jen compete with Wilson before Lisa got on and competed him in a different class. “This judge came up to me and she was like, you know, that horse really loves you. He goes so differently for you than he does for anyone else I’ve seen ride him.”
Far from taking Wilson for granted, Lisa explains what she feels with him. “Every single time I get on him, I feel really special.”
Emotional Support Horse
Wilson hasn’t just been there for Lisa as she’s gotten back in the saddle, he’s been there for her through all of her health struggles. At one point, Lisa had been accidentally overdosed on thyroid medication by a doctor she had been seeing at the time. Not only did three-fourths of her hair fall out, but she felt extremely emotionally unstable and, quite simply, really sick.
Seeking help from her best friend, Lisa headed to the barn. “I was at the end of my rope with all the health stuff and just felt like it was never going to get better,” Lisa said. “He was in his pasture and he was eating grass and I went to the gate and I just put my arms over the gate and I just started crying my eyes out.”
Never one to let Lisa cry alone, Wilson left his grass and came over to comfort her. “He almost had his head tilted to the side like, ‘What’s happening?’” Lisa said. “He came over and he put his head over my shoulder. And he pushed against me, like a hug. And he was nuzzling my back and trying to make me laugh. He would put his nose on my face and lick the side of my face and then start pushing me another way again. He could see that it redirected me.”
Lisa feels that Wilson knows she isn’t as healthy as other riders. At one point Lisa had to spend time in the hospital where they pumped her full of fluids and steroids. When she was discharged, she headed straight to the barn. “He came up to me at the gate and just took his nose up and down my arms, sniffing me, and was just so gentle,” Lisa said. “I honestly believe that he knows that I’m not healthy and that I can’t fall off and that there are times when I’m like a noodle and he needs to take care of me.”
On top of fighting Addison’s Disease, Lisa has also conquered a lot of childhood trauma, which led her to develop poor self-esteem and a lack of confidence. That all changed when Wilson came along. “I always struggled pretty severely with my self-esteem. That combined with the health issues made me really terrified to horse show,” Lisa said. “Wilson gives me that motivation to go in the ring and not think about other people’s opinions. He’s really left me a different person.”
Now when Lisa and Wilson go into the ring, there’s only one opinion she cares about. “I’m not thinking about what other people think about me, I’m only thinking about what Wilson thinks about me.”
Beating the Odds (and Cancer)
When Lisa first met Wilson, he had had surgery to remove tumors from his cornea on a nearly yearly basis. Thanks to her medical background, Lisa knew to ask the vet to try a different radiation drug. “I had them do strontium probes instead,” Lisa said. “Since then, he hasn’t had any recurring tumors on his cornea.”
Wilson’s squamous cell carcinoma was supposed to be highly unlikely to metastasize. But, in the fall of 2016, his entire face became swollen. Lisa and Jen brought him to a nearby vet school for a CAT scan which confirmed the worst—the tumor had returned but not on his cornea. Instead, it had metastasized to his eye socket and nasolacrimal duct. Despite the fact that options were limited and he was given only three months to live, Lisa was determined that this would not be the end of Wilson.
“I went back in there and I was like, ‘OK, Doctor, you’ve got to give me some options,’” Lisa said. “‘I don’t care how much it costs. I don’t care where it is. I don’t care if it’s experimental. But, three months is not enough.’”
That was how Wilson found himself staying for over a month at the Ohio State Veterinary School. Lisa stayed with him the entire time, working remotely from inside his box stall. “I promised him that I would be with him when he took his last breath and I meant it,” Lisa said.
His birthday came and went during his hospital stay and Lisa and the hospital staff went all out to celebrate. “They made him a huge banner and happy birthday sign and they all wrote him little notes on it.”
Clearly a staff favorite, Wilson got impeccable treatment during his stay and was a model patient. It’s well known that anesthesia is particularly hard on horses, especially during the waking up process. Wilson, on the other hand, became perfectly calm and relaxed while waking up from sedation. “I walked in there and he had his head laying in one of the techs’ laps and she was putting peppermints in his mouth,” Lisa said. “He just looked at me like, ‘Hi mom.’”
While Lisa says that she spent an amount comparable to a “bachelor’s degree from UNC with out-of-state tuition” on his radiation treatment, she also says that she would have done anything to save his life. She sold her home to pay for his treatment and bought another one two years later in Holly Springs, North Carolina. Despite all of this, Lisa said, “There is nothing that I could ever do that would repay him for what he’s done for me, nothing.”
Lisa’s conviction paid off. Just before Christmas in 2016, Wilson came home. “He went out with his friend Jet. He was squealing, almost like he was telling Jet all about what happened. He was just so ecstatic to be home,” Lisa said.
Not long after he returned home, Wilson was back to fighting fit and back in the show ring. Not only did he return to competition, but he won his first show back. “He won every class he was entered in,” Lisa said. “He was just so happy to be back in the ring, doing what he loves to do with me.”
Now 24 years old, Wilson is still cancer-free and loving life. Nearly a decade after she first ran to her trainer with a check to buy him, he and Lisa are still winning blue ribbons at competitions and enjoying their inseparable bond. There’s been one addition to his horse show outfit since he was diagnosed with cancer in 2016: a red and white squamous cell carcinoma ribbon braided into his mane or attached to his bridle.
Lisa has no regrets about anything she’s done for Wilson. “Wilson saved my life,” she said. “I honestly don’t know if I would have made it through parts of my life without him.”
Photos by Kirsten Hannah, kirstenhannahphotography.com