When strangers look at Denice Kinney's gelding, Cisco De Kid, they're most likely to see him as a well-tended, sweet-faced old fellow who's gone gray around the eyes with his 28 years. But Denice sees an entirely different picture.
To her, this now-elderly Quarter Horse is the living, meaningful embodiment of her sister Julie's memory. Julie died of cancer at age 20, in 1999, and since then, says Denice, "Cisco has been a best friend to me."
Denice's ability to convey how a horse changed her life earned her the grand prize in Horse&Rider's first Readers' Choice "Your Horse Your Life" contest. A panel of judges chose her photo and essay from those of five finalists determined by readers' preliminary online voting. She won a photo shoot, with coverage in H&R, plus tack and clothing prizes from sponsors Weaver Leather and Miller International, Inc.
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"The prizes are really wonderful, but that's not why I entered," says the Fairview, Illinois, resident. "I did it to honor Julie.
"Even though I was 12 years older than my sister, we were very close," Denise continues. "We shared our love of horses, and even shared the same birthday. It was devastating to lose her, and Cisco has done more for me than any grief counselor."
My Horse, Your Life
Cisco, as it turns out, had been a bonding agent between the sisters well before Julie got sick. He kept them connected at a time when Denice was grown up and on her own, and Julie remained at home as the teenaged baby of the family.
"I got my first horse as an adult," Denice remembers, "and when Julie was about 15, in the mid-1990s, she took an interest in horses, too. I decided I would try to find one that she could ride, so we could ride together. When we found Cisco, we both liked him?even though he bucked when we first rode him?and I paid $1,500 to take him home."
Sometimes Denice kept custody of Cisco, sometimes Julie did. For the next five years or so, the sisters shared their horse interests and rode together when they could. Eventually, Julie saved enough of her own money to repay Denice for Cisco, and did so by handing over the sum, proudly, in $100 bills.
Then, right after Julie turned 20, she learned she was in stage IV of a rare and aggressive form of gastric cancer. Despite treatment that included a month's hospital stay, she lived just another five months.
"She was so brave, never complained, and she never lost her faith in God, even when she knew she was facing the end," Denice recalls. "She did things to help us, when it was us who wanted so much to be able to help her."
One day, as that end got closer, Julie passed her horse's lead rope, and what would be a lifeline, to Denice.
"The whole family was at the hospital with her, and Julie's eyes met mine in a stare that seemed to last for an eternity," Denice relates. "Then she said, ?I have a favor to ask. Please?take care of Cisco for me, because I won't be able to.'
"I don't have the words to explain the emotion of that moment, but from then on, Cisco has kept part of Julie with me," she continues. "When I'm with him, I feel her presence, and am at peace."
For some time after losing her sister, Denice couldn't face up to riding. But Cisco, she says, helped bring her out of that, just by being there in need of daily care, and by having been Julie's horse.
Cisco remains an active equine, over 12 years after Julie's passing. He's helped several children learn to ride, participates in an annual parade, and takes his turns out on trails. He resides with Denice's two other geldings, one of them that first horse, now very old, that she purchased many years ago.
What might things be like if Julie were here today? Denice thinks she'd still be a trail rider, with a small barn of her own.
"And I know for a fact she'd still have Cisco!"
Denice's Contest Entry
Cisco is a horse that has been a best friend to me since my sister, Julie, passed away from cancer at the age of twenty in 1999. As sisters, we shared so much together including our passion for horses. We even shared the same birthday, although I am twelve years older.
When Julie was diagnosed, I was overwhelmed with emotion. During one of my last visits with her in the hospital, our eyes met with an understanding that only sisters can have. She knew her time was near and she said softly to me, "Please take care of Cisco, and if he ever gets in pain that can't be controlled, please put him down." We buried Julie a month later. That was twelve years ago, and Cisco is now 27. I count it a blessing to own him because when I spend time with Cisco, I feel the presence of my sister and the memories never fade.
At first, I couldn't bring myself to ride again. I would take a bucket and sit in the pasture and watch the horses. Cisco would come up and just stand next to me, as I cried, and he would nibble on my shoulder as if he understood, and to say everything will be okay. Cisco has done more for me than any grief counselor ever could. I love this horse because he gives me peace and comfort. There isn't a day that goes by that I don't think of Julie and our special bond.