Lisa Simmons hangs sideways for a few seconds, her torso in the grasp of a burly volunteer, her limp right leg propped over the back of a chocolate-brown thoroughbred named Prince.
This is the part that makes everybody at HAPPI Farm nervous.
With a heave, Forest Williams, Simmons’ “sidekick,” slowly pushes her 6-foot-1 frame over the horse, which is being steadied next to a rail by three other helpers. Simmons grasps the saddle as best she can and tries to sit upright, but isn’t centered on the horse and wobbles precariously.
“I got ya Lisa, don’t worry,” says Williams, who holds her tight and then helps her shift her body so she can regain her balance.
Getting back in the saddle is the hard part. But then Simmons is riding, beaming as if she were the little girl on the home farm, long before progressive multiple sclerosis stole the use of her legs and the dexterity in her hands.
“I love to be outside,” says Simmons, struggling with each syllable. “I don’t want to be inside, all cooped up.”
For the 50-year-old, these twice weekly visits to the 4-acre farm in the Rolling Oaks section of Southwest Ranches are a welcome respite from her wheelchair and the dull indoors. The half-hour she spends each visit atop Prince, riding double with farm president Marie Lim, have strengthened her stomach and back muscles to the point where she can sit up on the horse without help for the first few minutes.
The rides also get her out of the house and with friends. She spends hours at the farm before and after rides, talking with other visitors and high school volunteers and feeding the gregarious Prince carrots and apple cores.
But mounting the horse is a production requiring several volunteers. Even then, it’s frightening to most everyone involved when Simmons, who weighs around 200 pounds, shifts too far to one side.
“At first we were very scared. It takes a lot,” said Lim. “It’s still scary.”
If she could afford it, Lim would purchase an $800 custom ramp on emedRamps.com and a $4,800 automatic mechanical lift from Advanced Mobility to help Simmons mount Prince — the farm’s only horse tall and strong enough to hold both women. But Lim says the non-profit HAPPI Farm, created to give special-needs children and adults close interaction with livestock from emus to ponies, operates on donated land with books in the red.
Likewise, Simmons says she can’t afford the equipment. She says her MS forced her to retire about 12 years ago from her job as a Miami-Dade probationary officer and live on a monthly $1,400 disability benefit that barely covers expenses and leaves most attractive therapies unaffordable.
Neither can Simmons afford the rides at the farm. Her sessions —which began in March and are almost up — were paid in half by an anonymous sponsor. The other half was picked up by HAPPI Farm. Lim, who nominated Simmons for the Miami Herald’s Wish Book, said Simmons will eventually need another sponsor to keep riding at HAPPI Farm.
Lim and Simmons say the horseback rides are doing her good. On a cool Thursday in December, the two rode together atop Prince as special-needs students from a private school trotted elsewhere and a braying donkey patrolled the perimeter of the farm. On their first lap, Simmons smiled wide and sat tall, needing no assistance. On the second, she lost strength and buckled, needing help to sit upright again. “Get up woman,” Lim urged her.
They did this for a half-hour, Simmons struggling over and over to sit tall and Lim prodding her on.
Simmons says the short rides remind her of her childhood on a farm on the outskirts of Pittsburgh, where she rode a Tennessee Walker. Her mother long suspected she had multiple sclerosis, she said, but it wasn’t until the single mom moved to South Florida and gave birth 23 years ago to her daughter, Alisha, that the symptoms became unmistakeable.
At first, Simmons said, she felt dizzy and weak after running. Then the strength in her legs waned until she needed a walker, and finally a wheelchair to get around. Still, even after losing the use of her right leg five years ago, Simmons has remained mostly independent.
She says her prognosis isn’t what she’d hope — not that she listens. “My doctors don’t tell me sh--. I do it all on my own.”
Though she lost strength in her second leg two years ago, Simmons still drives an automatic silver Honda Civic, using hand controls. And she’s a gym rat, choosing to spend much of her free time working on her now-weakening hands and legs at NeuroFit in Pembroke Pines and on her upper body at Club Fit in Cooper City. She said she’d much rather workout than sit around the house, “watching the boob tube.”
She often leaves early from the Davie townhouse she shares with her daughter and stays out late because she needs assistance getting in and out of her car and doesn’t like to ask others for help.
“People tell me that I shouldn’t do so much. It makes me tired. But I’m a go-getter and I like to do things,” she said. “I don’t want to end up in a bed.”
Simmons said her goal is to “get back to where I was” before MS put her in a wheelchair.
“That’s what I came for,” she said. “They say it’s not [possible], but I don’t care what anybody says.”