I don’t do this often, but my Christmas Day feature on Ashley Davidson, the 17-year-old Louisville girl who survived a brain tumor and received her wish of a horse this past fall, was only part of the story. Or, at least, it was less of the story than I hoped to tell.
As is always the case in such stories, there’s more to it. Here is my original piece on Davidson — before I had to whittle it down to a more manageable length for the paper — for anyone who cares to read more, or who missed the story on Christmas Day.
To read the original column as it appeared in the paper, click here.
Gift horse delivers hope for the holidays
I don’t know what you found under the tree Christmas morning. But my candidate for best gift of the year belongs to Ashley Davidson, who turned 17 on Christmas Day.
Not long ago, Ashley was given the horse of her dreams. But before I tell you about the gift, I want to tell you about the girl.
When she was 21 months old, doctors discovered that Ashley had a brain tumor 10 centimeters wide. They removed it, but told her parents that she would have a host of medical problems, would be weak on her left side, would struggle to do even basic mathematics.
Today, Ashley does have medical problems. She also is an A student at DuPont Manual High School and plays French horn (third chair out of eight) in its Youth Performing Arts School.
But Ashley’s first love is horses. She began taking riding lessons when she was five.
As the years passed, Ashley progressed. At Rock Creek Riding Club, she worked herself to the top of its Academy division. She begged for her own horse and her parents relented, Ashley working at the club to help pay for boarding. In 2005, she won a Grand National Championship at the Academy level in Murfreesboro, Tenn.
She still lived a life of doctors and needles and tests and scans. The brain tumor left her with pituitary complications and other issues. But she hurdled those. And horses helped her.
“Being on a horse, or around a horse, or at the barn, it’s peace for me,” she said. “That’s where I’m the most comfortable. It relieves all the stress. Anything that’s been on my mind goes away. Horses don’t judge. They’re best friends to me. I can walk through the barn and anything I was worried about just goes away, and it’s kind of a haven.”
And it’s a haven she has needed. One more thing before hearing about Ashley’s gift. Two days before the Derby this year, her 15-year-old brother Thomas was diagnosed with melanoma.
In two surgeries at St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital in Memphis, Thomas has had much of his left forearm removed, along with the fat and lymph nodes under his armpit and chest. After cancer was found there, too, he underwent six weeks of radiation and intravenous chemotherapy, and lived with his mother at the Ronald McDonald House there.
He’s back home now, where his mother administers weekly chemo injections.
And then, there’s the matter of Ashley’s eye. After Thomas’ diagnosis, doctors became concerned at a small spot they’d been watching for some time in the back of her left eye. An ophthalmic oncologist at St. Jude’s subsequently confirmed it as melanoma. They won’t treat it until it reaches a certain size, but have warned her that she likely will lose sight in that eye when it is treated.
And then there’s the worry that it could metastasize to the liver, and at a certain point, Mary Davidson said, “it’s just crazy,” and the worries pile onto each other until you just don’t know what to do with them. That’s where the Make-A-Wish Foundation comes in. Thomas has yet to figure out his wish, exactly.
But when asked, Ashley didn’t even have to think about it. Not only did she know that she wanted a quality American Saddlebred — having recently sold her horse to leave her wondering where her riding opportunities would come from — she knew which one she wanted.
Her best horse had been a colt named Can You Even, competing in the 3-Gaited Pleasure Class. He was a brother to a mare named Have You Ever, who Ashley had fallen love with long before she won World Champion Amateur Ladies 5-Gatied Mare in Freedom Hall in 2006.
Ashley even knew Have You Ever was retired at Leatherwood Stud in Paris, Ky. She visited the farm with her mother one day this past summer, and while Ashley spent time with the horses, Mary told her story to farm manager Fred Sarver, who teared up before she could even finish.
Sarver went to Ashley and asked her, “What is your wish?”
After a few minutes, she asked whether Have You Ever’s firstborn, a 2-year-old colt named Leatherwood Forever, would even be available for purchase.
“What else?” Sarver asked her.
She said her dream was that she could buy that colt and have it trailed by Smith Lilly, a well-known Saddlebred trainer in Princeton, W. Va., who had trained the mother and her siblings.
“I’ll never forget,” Mary Davidson said. “Before we left the farm that day, Fred Sarver said, ‘Thank you for bringing this to me.’ He was thanking us. I could not get over that.’
Sarver said it only really took two phone calls. One was to Ann Tierny Smith, owner of Leatherwood Stud Farm, and the colt. There was little discussion, he said. Smith said she could make it happen. Lilly didn’t take long to agree to train the colt free for a year, board it, and provide more lessons for Ashley.
“We’re only a couple of calls away from getting anything we need to get in this country,” he said. “Ashley is bright and energetic, and you can feel the purpose driven energy when she’s around the horses. Everybody here is thrilled to be able to be a part of the process. This is a special family. Normal for them is still pretty tough.
“At the best, she has gotten a champion horse. At the worst, she has a friend for life.”
So on a day in October, at Keeneland, Sarver and Smith and Barclay de Wet, Have You Ever’s rider, and others, presented Ashley with the ownership certificate on Leatherwood Forever.
She met the colt several times before she owned him. His mane, in fact, matches the color of her hair.
“I remember looking at pictures of these babies a while ago, and now I own one of them and I can’t even explain how phenomenal that feels,” she said. “I can’t believe this is really real.”
Life, of course, remains all too real for the Davidson family. On Wednesday, they had just returned from Memphis, where Ashley had undergone three hours of examinations on her eye and Thomas another round of treatment.
He hasn’t settled on a wish yet. He at one point asked for a trip to Japan, but that couldn’t be granted until 2011, so is looking for something he can do sooner.
But on Christmas this year, amid some difficult circumstances, they all are celebrating the gift of hope, thankful for horse people with big hearts, and a group like Make-A-Wish, and its big mission. Any money Leatherwood Forever wins, they say, will go straight to Make-A-Wish.
“It takes a lot of bad stuff that we’re going through, and puts a lot of positive stuff in our life that we can talk about other than needles and bloodwork and counts and chemo and that stuff,” Mary Davidson said. “It means everything.”
In 2007, Ashley reached a lifelong goal when she rode in the World Championship Horse Show at the Kentucky State Fair. She won’t be able to show Leatherwood Forever until he’s a 4-year-old, but that vision already is with her.
“Trotting down the chute into Freedom Hall and feeling the cold air, it’s phenomenal,” she said. “I was riding Can You Even, and I loved him so much. That’s the height of the Saddlebred world, and as good as it can get.”
Or maybe, the gift that the Davidsons can celebrate, and share, is the hope that it can get better.