Rider, 97, gets back in saddle at Helen Woodward Animal Center in Rancho Santa Fe


Four generations of family members and beloved friends gathered recently at the Helen Woodward Animal Center’s Therapeutic Riding Program’s Riding Arena to watch 97-year-old Helen Downey check the “No. 1 item” off her bucket list — to ride a horse again.

The senior (and her senior therapeutic horse, named Noodles) demonstrated to everyone watching that age is truly a state of mind.

Helen Downey grew up in Los Angeles County and began horseback riding as a child. Her father owned a cattle ranch 60 miles northeast of Fresno, and at just 8 years old, Downey would help her father herd the cattle along the Kings River for up to four days at a time. During the school year, she even rode her horse to a one-room schoolhouse, tethering it to a post and riding it back home each day when school was finished.

Throughout her adult life, she rode horses casually while living in Connecticut and again, from time to time, when she returned to California and moved to Rancho Santa Fe, but never with the regularity she had experienced as a child. As the years went on, horseback riding became a beautiful part of her past. For most people, the experience would have simply become one reserved for memory. But Downey isn’t like most people.

A recent dream reignited her interest in climbing back onto a horse. “I live at La Costa Glen in Carlsbad, which is a wonderful place with lots of household pets,” said Downey. “A few weeks back, I had a dream about a horse. I was standing next to it, and I knew I was going to ride it. When I woke up, I felt happy and I talked to my friends about it.”

The dream prompted a “bucket list” discussion among the La Costa Glen residents. “Riding a horse topped mine,” said Downey. “Second on the list was getting an iPad and getting into the modern age.” A friend suggested Helen Woodward Animal Center’s Therapeutic Riding Program, and Downey’s granddaughter, Jennifer Henkel, made the phone call.

The center’s Therapeutic Riding Program began in 1980 to assist children and adults with special needs from cerebral palsy to Down syndrome and autism, to stroke recovery and learning disabilities. Students ride specially trained horses with certified instructors in weekly sessions to develop increased balance and muscle control, improve concentration and short-term memory, and enhance their confidence and self-esteem.

“Many seniors would be intimidated by riding a horse,” said therapeutic riding instructor Gretchen Davis. “It’s quite an athletic feat, which is part of the reason it is such good exercise and physical therapy for our clients. But our program works with all sorts of physical needs, and being elderly certainly wasn’t the most challenging we’ve seen, particularly when you have the type of spirit that Helen has.”

The staff selected Noodles, a 25-year-old Thoroughbred, for Downey’s ride. Although one of the most senior horses at the facility (at approximately 75 years in human years), Noodles is also one of the most alert and vibrant, with a genuine attentiveness to his riders.

“Meeting Helen was a shot in the arm,” said Davis. “We work with incredible clients every single day, but every now and again, one comes along who helps you see the program in a completely different light. Helen and Noodles’ connection was beautiful. Age didn’t factor in. They both looked like they could have ridden together all day.”

Downey credits a commitment to maintaining a positive spirit for her active, fulfilling lifestyle. Her joy was clear and contagious. Amid beaming family and friends, she reflected, “Never stop dreaming. With a little help, those dreams can come true at any age.”

For information on participating in the program or providing funding support, contact Therapeutic Riding Manager Alicia Roe at 858-756-4117, ext. 321, go to, or stop by the Helen Woodward Animal Center at 6461 El Apajo Road in Rancho Santa Fe.