PARACHUTE — Beaming with a nervous and wide grin — the sort of uncontrollable grin that accompanies living one’s dream — Bradley Skinner mounted his horse, Kansas, for the first time Sunday. Grasping the reins as tightly as his hardened hands would allow, the two traveled alongside renowned horse trainer John Lyons at his sprawling facility in Parachute. It was a moment he will never forget.
“I haven’t been disappointed,” Bradley, an energetic 16-year-old from Corpus Christi, Texas, said shortly after dismounting Kansas for the first time. “It’s great seeing the way Kansas has changed and become a more enjoyable horse to be around. It’s wonderful.”
Bradley, his family and Kansas spent the past week with Lyons thanks to the Make-A-Wish Foundation Texas Gulf Coast and Louisiana chapter and the Lyons family. The request was a first, said Julie Baldwin, wish coordinator at the Texas Gulf Coast and Louisiana chapter. For Lyons — an internationally known trainer whose office resembles a trophy room more than anything else — the request was an honor.
“We definitely wanted to do it,” he said sitting by a fire after Bradley’s first ride. “It was a great honor to be asked.”
Bradley was 8 years old when he was diagnosed with systemic scleroderma, a disorder that his mother, Tanya Skinner, said most people have never heard of and most doctors will never encounter. It is characterized by the buildup of scar tissue in the skin and internal organs, potentially causing organ failure, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. The disorder is estimated to range from 50 to 300 cases per 1 million people.
“I’m doing much better than I was,” Bradley said. “Now the only thing that it really affects is my hands and my grip.”
Shortly after his diagnosis at a Houston hospital, Bradley started considering possible wishes. While most children choose a trip to Disney World or a meeting with their favorite celebrity, Bradley said he either wanted land for a horse or an RV. His parents said no to both. Over the next eight years Bradley’s parents and four siblings half jokingly made suggestions — Brian Skinner, his father, mentioned a fishing trip to Alaska — but none of them appealed to Bradley.
“I wanted something I could take home and enjoy afterward, instead of going on a trip,” he said. “I wanted to be able to put it to use.”
The skinner family lived in the Corpus Christi city limits and knew almost nothing about horses when Bradley’s grandfather pulled into the drive way with Kansas in February 2013. The 8-month-old horse was going to be sold for meat when his grandfather rescued him in Kansas.
“It was an unexpected gift,” Brian said.
Bradley was enamored instantly. He sat outside staring at the trailer for three days. A life destined to end at a slaughter house had made Kansas skittish. He was afraid of everything, and nobody could touch him, with the exception of Bradley, Tanya said. While the horse slightly warmed to the rest of the family after relocating to a more rural part of town, no one could ride Kansas. He was unbroken. Bradley started researching horse trainers online, and he continued seeing the name John Lyons. By February 2015, Bradley told his parents about his wish. Three months later they were on an airplane for the first time.
“We didn’t know what to expect,” Tanya said.
It took nearly two hours to get a kicking and biting Kansas into the horse trailer.
“I didn’t think there was any way that horse was going to be ridden,” said Tim Weatherby, who, along with his wife Claire Weatherby, volunteered to transport Kansas.
Before they departed, Bradley’s parents hinted at the possibility that he might not be able to ride Kansas. “And he said, ‘Mom, it is what it is,’” Tanya said. Bradley was careful not to set his expectations too high, but for Lyons it was a question of when, not if. “I never questioned it,” he said.
What followed was a careful and calculated approach. On day one Lyons worked on leading Kansas. On day two he put a saddle on the horse. On day three Lyons was able to ride Kansas. “That was very good progress,” the semi-retired horse trainer said. On day five it was Bradley’s turn, and he was nervous. While Kansas had improved greatly, he was still skittish, and the potential for harm lingered in Bradley’s mind. But once he grabbed the reigns the smile did not leave his face.
“Seeing my son smile like that when he was up on that horse smiling ear to ear … that was my highlight,” Tanya said.
The trip, which cost around $7,300, would have been impossible without Make-A-Wish and the Lyonses, Brian and Tanya said. The Lyonses were equally grateful.
“It has been amazing to be able to share our place with such a wonderful family,” Jody Lyons, John’s wife, said. “I feel like we’ll be friends for forever.”
The trip was a lot of firsts for Bradley and his family — first time on an airplane, first time in Colorado, first time seeing the mountains. But for the young man who could have made a million different wishes, the first time on his horse is what he will remember most.
“I don’t regret coming here and making this my wish,” he said. “I’ll never forget it.”
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