Marissa Boone, a precocious redhead with hair that reached her lower back, spent her
10th birthday horseback riding with four best friends. She remembers how they all climbed onto a huge Belgian draft for a ride together, and how excited she was to eat at her favorite restaurant.
She also remembers the persistent throbbing headache she had, how tired she felt and that she was so sick she couldn't eat. Days later she was diagnosed with Medulloblastoma, a type of brain cancer, and was told she would need surgery immediately. Even though Marissa was only a fourth grader, this moment set her on a path that would forever change her life.
JUST THE BEGINNING
“I was terrified,” recalls Marissa. “I thought if you had cancer you died. They wanted to do surgery the next day, but I said I’m not doing anything until my dad gets here.”
Marissa's dad was on the first leg of a business trip to Ireland, but thanks to his boss and colleagues, he flew back on a private jet that day.
“While dad was on his way home, mom figured out where to go and how to do it. She deserves an award in resourcefulness,” she says.
The nine-hour surgery was just the beginning of Marissa’s healing. She would later undergo rounds of chemotherapy and radiation, as well as blood transfusions. Eventually, she lost all of her long red hair, but she was strong and her fiery disposition served her well. She learned to sport stylish head scarves and had one to match every outfit in her very full closet.
HEALING WITH HORSES
Marissa's mom, Charlene, believed her daughter needed something in her life other than doctors and needles. Knowing that her daughter always wanted to ride horses, she found a horsemanship program near home in Scottsdale, Arizona, called Camelot Therapeutic Horsemanship that offered a complete horsemanship program for children and adults with disabilities. This was the perfect alternative to a traditional riding stable. The staff knew how to keep her safe, but also allowed her to get her hands dirty and pursue her love of horses.
During her first lesson, Marissa learned about safety and grooming and she helped saddle her horse, a little brown mustang named Bravo who would soon win her heart.
“Riding gave me something else to focus on and gave me confidence because I could do something with an animal so much bigger and strong than me,” Marissa claims. “It was therapeutic and an escape. I forgot about all the bad stuff.”
Marissa remembers one day when chairs were placed in the arena, and the horses were loose around them. The exercise is called “horse flower” because the people are sitting in a circle and the horses join, like petals of a flower. Sometimes students learned about horse behavior, and other times they would just enjoy the company of the horses and fellow riders.
“I had my helmet on and Cayanna kept nuzzling my helmet with her lips,” Marissa recalls. “She wasn’t used to me yet and I thought it was funny she wouldn’t leave me alone. It was so much fun to be in that natural environment with all the horses around you. It was healing just in and of itself.”
NOT OUT OF THE WOODS
Marissa was nearing her final chemotherapy treatment when she developed a brain cloud, a complication due to scar tissue on the brain, combined with residual effects from the chemo drugs. She was in a coma for four days and in the hospital for about a month relearning basic skills like how to feed herself and how to walk.
Soon after returning home she received an unexpected visit from the ranch.
“I remember watching the longest trailer I'd ever seen pull onto the narrowest street ever. I couldn’t believe there were horses at my house! It was exciting and made me really happy. I remembered there is a reason to get better and get back to the ranch.”
“Riding horses taught me that I have control over myself and I don’t have to be scared. When you're on them, you kind of connect with their soul,” says Marissa. “They have a good flow of energy. It’s like breathing; they help you get rid of the bad stuff.”
Marissa has many great memories of her time at Camelot and her barn friends, like the time she and her instructor went on a trail ride, riding double on a big Percheron named Paladin. She remembers laughing hysterically, and doesn't focus on the fact she could barely walk that day, let alone sit independently on a horse. The many happy barn memories eclipse a lot of the challenging ones.
Boone graduated from College
Today Marissa is 24, a graduate of Northern Arizona University and a phlebotomist. She is cancer free and volunteers at Camelot, mucking stalls on the weekends and helping with students. She also volunteers at the Phoenix Children's Hospital, where she spent much time as a child.
“I figure now is a good time in my life,” Marissa says. “I’m done with college and I have time to give back to the people who gave so much to me. The human will is stronger than anything, if you have the will and a reason,” she adds. “You go inside yourself and you think about kicking each individual cell. You fight it. You have to find the will to fight it.”
Michelle Guerrero was Marissa Boone's riding instructor at Camelot. She remembers lots of fun trail rides, horse flowers and laughing hysterically. Guerrero is a freelance writer and PATH International certified riding instructor who lives in Arizona. She grew up riding dressage and jumping, and today studies with James Shaw and enjoys learning to Ride From Within.