For a former horseback riding champion, mounting a horse may not seem like much of an accomplishment, but Lauren Ault has come a long way.
Seven years ago, Ault was diagnosed with a brain stem tumor, forcing her to rely on a wheelchair.
“The first time, it took five of us to get her on the horse,” said Cathi Brown, co-owner of HOrses Helping PEople (HOPE). “We were scared to death. I think we made 10 steps before we had to stop.”
Lauren, 27, began riding horses at the age of 3 in Charles City, Va. Her father, Peter, was an avid fox hunter and wanted his daughters to like horses as much as he did.
“None of them took to it except for Lauren, and it was like an instant thing,” said Lauren’s mother, Ellen Ault. “You have to have the blood for it.”
After her parents divorced in 1990, Lauren moved to Gainesville with her mother. She took horseback-riding lessons and made frequent trips to Virginia to compete in English riding competitions and to hunt with her father.
In middle school, Lauren began having daily headaches. Her mother took her to a pediatrician frequently but was told she was merely suffering tension headaches due to stress. Ellen said this went on for eight years.
After graduating from Gainesville High School, Lauren began taking classes at Santa Fe College. For the first time in her life, she had trouble focusing and had to receive tutoring. After a year, she decided she had enough with school and moved to New York to pursue modeling and theater.
However, her headaches did not improve, and she returned to Gainesville a year later. Upon her return, Ellen noticed a change in her daughter’s appearance.
“Her head was bigger and her body was bigger, and then her eyes started looking different,” she said. “Her doctor still said it was nothing to be concerned about, but I took her to an ophthalmologist friend, and he examined her, and he knew right away.”
She was taken to UF Health Shands Hospital where MRI and CT scans showed her brain had opened and had started to shift down her spine. She had emergency surgery that night.
“I still didn’t know the gravity of the whole thing until I was sitting in the hall in the ICU and the elevator doors open,” Ellen said. “Out comes a gurney with all these doctors and nurses and this little thing with her head all bandaged up. And I just went crazy. I lost it thinking, ‘Oh my god, this was really a brain tumor.'”
Following the surgery, Lauren’s behavior began to change. Despite expressing her concern, Ellen said the doctors assured her everything was normal.
“I couldn’t get anyone to listen to me,” she said. “It’s just you’re the frantic mother. Well, she had locked up again with edema. Her fluid wasn’t flowing — that’s how she lost her sight, taste and smell.”
Lauren has no vision in her left eye and is 80 percent blind in the right. She also has no sense of taste and described her sense of smell as off.
“Coffee smells like ham. I wake up to a pot of ham,” Lauren said. “I used to work at Starbucks. I love coffee, so that’s a big bummer.”
Following the surgery, Lauren did not respond well to her physical therapy, which she described as monotonous. But after her elementary school teacher recommended her mother look into HOPE, things began to improve.
Lauren’s mother said she has noticed a huge improvement since Lauren first began the horse-aided therapy.
“The first time she did hippotherapy, when we got back in the car to go home, she was hysterical. She said, ‘I’m never doing this again. I’m never getting on a horse again,’ because it scared her,” Ellen said. “But when we went to (physical therapy) the next day, everybody was going, ‘What the heck has happened with Lauren? She’s stable.’ It had done all that in one lesson — stabilized her core to the point where her physical therapist noticed a difference.”
Beyond the physical benefits, hippothearpy provides Lauren a much-needed escape from the restrictions of her wheelchair.
“In the wheelchair, you’re so confined,” she said. “Just being on the horse, it’s like you can walk again. It’s very freeing. It’s like I never got sick.”
Although she has made great strides in her therapy, Lauren is not content. She wants to ride on her own again.
“Sometimes I want her to be more secure with the progress she’s made and not strive so hard for the future,” said Mallory Johnson, HOPE’s spring intern and volunteer coordinator. “She really wants to trot again and be independent.”
Lauren hopes to gain that independence with a custom saddle that will provide her with better input, which mimics a walking pattern in a patient’s pelvis through the horse’s movements, and limit her forward and backward movement.
“The saddle will help her focus on riding rather than just staying on the horse,” said Brown, who is also Lauren’s occupational therapist.
Carol Dougherty, who handles fundraising for HOPE, first met Lauren at the farm a year ago. Dougherty, whose brother donated the use of the 40 acres HOPE operates on, immediately found a connection with her.
“We’re both overcomers,” said Dougherty, who suffered a MRSA infection in the spine.
Dougherty saw how much horse riding meant for Lauren and began talking to CYMplify, a local coffee company, about holding an event that would raise money for Lauren’s saddle.
The benefit will be held at Gainesville’s CYM Coffee Co., located at 5402 NW 8th Ave., on Friday. The event will feature music, face painting, food and a beer garden.
“HOPE lets me walk again,” Lauren said. “The new saddle will let me ride again.”