Champ’s Heart: The Back Story
Horses reflect our emotions, while at the same time, they seem to know how to give us exactly what we need to soothe our pain.
– Barbra Schulte
On December 22, 2016, Reverend Larry Cudmore was diagnosed with an aggressive, life-threatening cancer. Little did he know, as he listened to the dire news and the even more dire prognosis, that this journey into darkness would lead him to one of the most fulfilling endeavors of his life. Nor could he have envisioned a young woman named Emily, who would plant the seed for bringing hope and healing to so many.
The news that there is a disease raging inside of us that could take our lives, would leave most of us in a state of shock. And that was Larry’s experience as he sat in his doctor’s office after hours. He could hear the words, but they surreally seemed to slide in and out of his reality. “It’s an aggressive, uncommon prostate cancer…high risk…9 out of 10 in severity…need to get to Utah University Hospital…no time to waste…” The only thing he could think to say in the moment was, “But I feel fine.”
Two days later, during Christmas Eve service, as he laid his hands on a young boy with inoperable brain cancer, the words he had heard settled in as if he had heard them for the first time. As he prayed for the boy’s healing, he cried. He prayed out loud for the boy and he cried silently for himself.
The day after Christmas, Larry, his wife, Wendy, and his son, Tim, drove to Salt Lake City where he took the first steps toward healing. As he prepared himself for the battery of tests and the months of treatment, he tried to take solace in the words of his doctor. “We’re going to knock the hell out of this thing,” he had said, and after the placement of forty-four radioactive beads and 26 sessions of intense radiation, he still didn’t know whether he would live to see another birthday. But he did believe that the doctor had kept his word.
It seemed that being a pastor was following him during his stay in Utah because even as he was fighting for his own life, he was called on to visit Emily; a seventeen-year-old patient who had been diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of cancer. Emily was staying just a couple of buildings down, in the Children’s Hospital on campus. Larry remembers that as he entered the pediatric unit, he was taken aback. “There were all these children in wheelchairs and children with bald heads and tubes coming out of their bodies.” He was struck by the gravity of the young lives so deeply affected by illness, and by the fact that their existence seemed to hold no respite from the struggle to survive. Where, he wondered, did they find laughter? Where did they find joy?
As he walked through the halls of the Children’s Hospital, the images kept replaying in his head, and as he entered Emily’s room, he was filled with the sadness that they had created. But then there was Emily; a beautiful, friendly girl who, on this day, was doing fairly well. She and Larry struck up a conversation about their experiences thus far and Larry helped her talk about her cancer. He felt a certain kinship with Emily and was able to visit with her a few times after that day. But each time they met Larry could see that Emily’s condition was worsening.
On their last meeting, he wanted to give her something to focus on besides her illness, so he told her stories about his horse, Champ, and he promised to bring him to see Emily when she got better. “If it is Winter, I’ll bring a sleigh and if it is summer, it will be a buggy”, he promised her. He left her with a picture of Champ and said, “This is what I want you to look forward to.” Emily lost her battle, and Larry didn’t get the chance to see her again before she died, but he was told that she had kept the picture of Champ at her bedside. Champ, unfortunately, also died six months later.
Some of the most important things in life are born in the hearts and minds of people who come face to face with their own mortality, or face-to-face with someone else’s. Suddenly, the repressed dreams of a lifetime rise to the surface, demanding to be realized. That seemed to be true for Larry. He saw Emily as the catalyst for his desire to start a program for children, and in many ways she was. It was his relationship with Emily that drove home the need for children like her to have a place of solace; a place to escape the day-to-day, moment-to-moment struggle of living with disabling conditions. But it also seemed that God had set things in motion even before Larry’s diagnosis, and the seeds of his dream were planted well before he met Emily. But it was she who had opened his eyes to the existence of a dream that had already begun.
Well before Larry put any kind of formality to it, children who needed it were coming to see his horses. When word got out that children with special needs could go see Larry’s horses, families in the church and in the community began asking if they too could come. Children with special needs were suddenly showing up on Larry’s radar and he would spontaneously ask them if they would like to come for a visit. Not only were these children coming to see his horses, but it wasn’t long before Larry was getting reports back from the families. Children with cerebral palsy were making better progress in physical therapy and starting to walk and build core strength. After a time, some of them were not just walking but running relay races with the ponies in tow. A young girl who had to be fed through a tube because of severe stomach issues found her way to Larry for brief moments of joy. And all of this was occurring before Larry ever started to make it official. Before his cancer, before Emily, and before he had even thought about what to do with the rest of his life.
But it was a children’s grief group who visited his horses shortly after the completion of his cancer treatment that helped him turn the corner into making this organic melding of children and horses into a bonafide program. He had expected seven children and 17 showed up, opening his eyes to the need for a program like this in his community. It also happened to be the day that he was told his cancer was in remission. At that moment, he knew what he was meant to do in his retirement.
So, at the age of 68, he set aside his pastoral robes to create a healing space for children with special needs. By simply offering them the chance to spend time with his horses, he hoped to bring a moment of joy into their lives, in which they could take respite from the burden of their emotional and physical challenges. And although he never said this out loud to me, I wonder if he silently hoped that in those moments of joy, they might also feel the presence of God.
He named the program “Champ’s Heart,” in memory of the horse that touched so many lives, and he started to put a non-profit business plan in place. But just because a person has a dream to help children with horses, doesn’t mean that children will just appear, and the right horses will just show up. Volunteers won’t just present themselves and donors won’t just offer unsolicited help…or will they? Well, if the dream belongs to Larry Cudmore, apparently, they do!
Even before he could iron out the details, the community was responding with donations of every kind. Almost overnight, Larry’s life-long dream of helping children turned it into a thriving equine-assisted healing program. Horses were being donated and money was coming in to care for them. Veterinarians were offering free services, and people within the community were offering the use of their land and arenas. Volunteers were showing up and information about the program was organically spreading around the community. Children with a wide variety of special needs were showing up to spend time with the horses, and it wasn’t long before entire families were benefitting from what Champ’s Heart had to offer.
The concept of helping people with horses is not a new one and at first glance, Larry’s dream might have seemed similar to the multitude of equine-assisted programs throughout the country. Equine-assistance programs have gained in popularity over the last 20 years and range from therapeutic riding to mental health interventions. The effectiveness of using horses to help people is well-documented and there is no doubt that this modality can help people heal in some miraculous ways. Over the years, equine-assistance programs have evolved from backyard endeavors to full-fledged successful businesses.
But Champ’s Heart was shaping up to be something uniquely different. Children and their families were showing up several days a week and Larry was adamant that none of them would pay a dime for their time with the horses. No one would be denied service, and no one would be asked to pay…even if they could. And the astonishing thing is that Larry had no desire to put money in his own pocket. Even though he had a formal non-profit structure being put in place, his dream remained completely unencumbered. He simply wanted to provide a place of respite that would elicit laughter, joy, and healing. That’s it. There would be no formal therapy, no structured sessions, and no expectations of what the children would or wouldn’t do. Unlike some equine-assisted programs, there would be no one to answer to (except the families), no outcome goals and no treatment plans. Larry just envisioned children relating to horses in any way that made them feel good. And the ever-present memory of his promise to Emily and images of the smiles on so many children’s faces kept him centered on the goal.
Now Larry, a team of volunteers, and some pretty special horses, are bringing smiles to children, families, and veterans several times a week. And the best part is…Champ’s Heart is run solely on donations, and no one is ever charged for the smiles they go home with.
Our goal is to put a smile on every face.