Jessica Morris

A couple million missing DNA pairs aren’t enough to keep the smile off Jesse Staley’s face as he rides one of the horses at the Seabiscuit Therapeutic Riding Center (STRC). The 14-year-old from Potter Valley, Calif., was born with a rare condition known as Chromosome 12p deletion. As a result of the missing DNA, Jesse has experienced challenges in many aspects of his life, but he’s not letting that stop him from achieving his goals and lighting up the lives of those around him.

Jesse is a regular at STRC, where he has made amazing progress since he began riding there six years ago. He had no previous experience with horses and was understandably nervous about climbing on the back of a half-ton animal for the first time. With the encouragement of STRC Director Erin Holzhauer and the reassuring presence of side walkers and a head walker, Jesse mounted up and didn’t look back.  

Now, he independently guides his horse on trail rides, with STRC volunteers nearby to provide support if necessary. The challenges he experiences in learning and communicating are nowhere to be seen as he rides down the dirt road. There is one thing you instantly notice about Jesse when you meet him though—his smile could melt an Arctic glacier. 

“Jesse is an incredible young man who I have had the pleasure to watch grow. He has always had such a kind spirit about him,” says Holzhauer. “He always takes the time to ask how all the volunteers working with him are doing and expresses genuine excitement when someone new is joining him.” 

Jesse’s inherently kind nature is evident when he’s working with the horses as well. Whether he’s grooming, doing groundwork, or riding, he is the consummate horseman, always considering the feelings of his equine partners and telling them “good job.”

Working with horses, both on the ground and through riding, helps Jesse improve his ability to focus, learn, and communicate. Riding, especially, is a powerful method of strengthening these skills. 

“Using the passive movement of a horse is really a wonderful tool in helping to engage the brain and helping to create focus,” explains Holzhauer.  

The progress Jesse has made in the past six years is a testament to the versatility and power of therapeutic riding. Through his experiences at STRC, Jesse has been able to improve his focus, learning abilities, communication skills, coordination, and balance. Perhaps most importantly, he has gained confidence in himself.

There is someone who doesn’t appreciate Jesse’s newfound confidence though. Freya, the plump Norwegian Fjord mare Jesse is holding in the picture above, clearly thought she might wither away to nothing if she didn’t eat some grass while the picture was being taken. Despite her best efforts, Jesse was able to follow Holzhauer’s instructions and kept control of the mischievous little mare. (note: No ponies were starved in the five-minute making of this photo.)

The confidence Jesse has gained makes the weekly drive to the ranch well worth it to his parents, who can’t say enough good things about the impact STRC has had on their son.

“It’s so good to look forward to a positive thing every week. Erin encourages him like crazy. He likes horses, he likes the idea of being able to master something,” says Jesse’s father Bill Staley. 

Jesse may be missing some important DNA, but thanks to the team at the Seabiscuit Therapeutic Riding Center, the support of his family, and Jesse’s own resilient nature, he has developed the qualities that truly matter. 

“Jesse has grown into not only an excellent horseman but an exceptional young man,” says Holzhauer. 

The challenges Jesse has had to face would be enough to make some people give up and succumb to bitterness. But not Jesse. He’s living life in a way we can all aspire to—good to his horses, with a kind word for everyone,  and a smile on his face. 

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