The blind horsewoman of Washington's high desert
Julie Hensley’s body echoes the rolling motion of her horse, Hot Rod, as she rides in tight circles around her arena.
Stop, roll back, lope — the palomino gelding an extension of his rider — pirouetting and stopping on a dime at her subtle command.
You would never know, watching this woman guide her horse through such complex maneuvers, that Julie Hensley is blind.
A yellow and black boom box sits on a barrel in the center of the arena, tuned to conservative talk radio. Snippets of President Trump’s latest speech weave in and out of call-ins about wolves killing cattle and ads for farming equipment.
But Julie isn’t listening for content. She orients herself and her horse using the sounds from the center of the arena.
In one hand she holds a length of stiff nylon rope which she uses as an antenna, tapping and feeling for the fence that marks the edge of the arena, as Hot Rod runs around.
Julie grew up on a large ranch in Okanogan County, the daughter of a rodeo calf roper, and has been a horsewoman all her life.
The walls of her tack room are adorned with old saddles and faded photographs: Julie in a cowgirl hat wearing the rodeo queen sash (she was Washington State high school rodeo queen in 1974), Julie on horseback, racing low and fast around a barrel, Julie posing on sleek, athletic quarter horses.
And it was a horse that took her eyesight away.
Julie was in her early 20s, married, and working at a racetrack in the Tri-Cities when the accident happened.
It was the winter racing season and there was ice on the track. Her horse lost its footing and Julie took the full force of the fall on her head, giving her a concussion and detaching her retinas.
Within a week, she was blind.
“It was a very sudden thing and sometimes I don’t even hardly remember those parts of my life because I try to block them out,” she said.
At 23, Julie’s life began to unravel. She underwent three surgeries to reattach her retinas, all unsuccessful.
Soon afterward, she and her husband divorced and Julie moved home to the ranch. Those first three months were the hardest of Julie’s life.
“There was a moment when I felt that life wasn’t worth living,” she said.
How could she make herself useful on a ranch without her eyesight? she wondered. How would she earn money? How would she get around?
“I was at a low spot as far as being depressed and not having a lot of hope,” Julie said.
And then her father said it was time for a new horse.
“My father was my hero and my rock,” Julie said. “He knew that what I really needed to do was get back on a horse and start working with horses — I think we both knew.”
The first time she got back on a horse after the accident wasn’t frightening. There were no tears of joy. She said it felt normal, and good for her soul.
Julie and her father went to the Hermiston horse auction in Oregon and bought a filly they named Rendezvous Chic, because she was Julie’s first rendezvous with horses after her accident.
Julie trained the young horse on the family ranch as she herself adjusted to life without vision. When she couldn’t do it, her dad helped.
Working with horses took on new meaning for Julie after she lost her sight. She used to prefer horses with spitfire and spice. But a blind rider requires a horse that is completely responsive, calm and attuned to the job at hand.
“I have to have a horse that has certain manners,” she said. “It takes hours and hours of work but when you have no sight you have to have higher expectations of your horses.”
Julie has three Quarter Horse geldings now. Rocky is her oldest, then Hot Rod and Hollywood, a yearling colt.
She’s pretty sure her horses know she’s blind. Rocky has learned to stand silently in the pasture when Julie comes to catch him for a ride. (He doesn’t even switch his tail because he knows Julie will hear him).
Fortunately, with the help of her seeing eye dog, Fonzie, she can usually locate her sneaky steeds.
And once saddled and mounted up like this, Julie said riding her horses is the closest she gets to regaining her vision.
“Because the horse sees, it makes me feel like I’m not blind,” she said. “It makes me feel a real freedom.”
Every decade or so, Julie has to travel to a city to get a new seeing eye dog. She said being blind in rural America is different than the city. Where she lives there are fewer services and public transportation is just about non-existent.
But Julie says the open range is her home and she’s built a support network out here.
She’s a member of the Back Country Horsemen and has a close group of friends with whom she goes trail riding. Her husband Kurt — who jokes that he met Julie on a blind date — supports her horsemanship and knows that training horses gives Julie’s life focus and meaning.
Julie often goes trail riding with her friend Sue Robbins.
On a recent summer day the two rode out to some of Julie’s old haunts on her family’s ranch, which is now managed by Julie’s brother. Sue took the lead on her mare, Mocha, and Julie followed on Hot Rod, her nylon antenna in hand.
As they wove through the sage brush, Sue warned Julie: “Big branch on your right,” or “Barbed wire on the ground to your left,” or “We’re coming to a gate up ahead.”
The horses picked their way through the rocky canyonland, carrying their riders over dips and rises, across creeks and up steep scree slopes.
Julie couldn't see the rock formations or the ponds or canyons that she knew as a girl, but she remembered them.
“A lot of the places that we ride I can visualize the rock formations, the trees, just about everything is in my memory,” Julie said.
As she rode on, she described the view.
“This is Coyote Canyon,” Julie said, as Hot Rod made his way down into a rocky crack in the landscape.
“You can just imagine that it’s like an old trail in a Western movie," she said. "It just weaves through sagebrush and up over the rocks.”
The trail rose out of the canyon, and Julie stopped at a place called “Lunch Rock,” because, well, that’s what one does there.
Julie dismounted to let her horse graze a bit, and sat down on a stone surrounded by sagebrush and bunchgrass.
“This is a place where I’ve solved a lot of problems,” she said, stroking Hot Rod’s neck. “It was a place of healing after I lost my sight, to come home and just get a sense of who I was again, and be able to connect with the land and the cattle and hearing the birds.”
Julie said blindness has been the biggest “brick wall” in her life, but the truth is, we all face them in one form or another.
“Life is worth living,” she said. “No matter how bad it seems."