Rosie stands quietly by the horse trailer as Alyssa Tudor gets ready for their big run. Once Rosie’s leg wraps, saddle and bridle are on, Alyssa lifts herself out of her wheelchair and pulls herself up into the saddle in a swift, practiced move.
Alyssa is a 17-year-old barrel racer from Fort Mohave, Arizona, who doesn’t let her paralysis get in the way of her love for horses. During gymkhana circuits in Mohave County, you will find her at every weekend competition throughout the season.
“I wanted to be a show jumper,” Alyssa says. “Then I went to my first rodeo and saw barrel racing. I said, ‘I want to do that.’”
In the saddle, Alyssa adjusts her reins, pulls two rubber bands from the saddle horn and makes a figure 8 around her boots, securing her feet in the stirrups. A built-in saddle seat belt is buckled and tugged tight.
Alyssa is ready. Rosie lights up as the duo excitedly makes its way to the arena.
As the announcer calls the horse and rider on deck, Rosie’s hooves dance in anticipation of their run. Alyssa takes a deep breath and positions her seat upright for a fast break out of the gate.
As the buzzer sounds, the duo races against the clock, making a tight circle around the first barrel. Right then left, they break away to the final barrel and push hard toward the finish line.
In mere seconds, it is over.
The practice, dedication and confidence it took to make it to the arena are years in the making.
“Alyssa was just under 1 year old sitting on a horse for the first time,” says RoJeana Wymbs, Alyssa’s mom. “I figured it was a phase. All she wanted to do was get on the back of a horse.”
Alyssa’s childhood changed in the blink of an eye. One moment, she was a spirited, social butterfly who dreamed of horses. The next, she was faced with an illness that would change the course of her life.
In June 2008, 3½-year-old Alyssa started showing signs something
“It went from a matter of achy pains in the leg to not walking and then being shuffled around between doctors and hospitals,” RoJeana says.
Finally, doctors discovered a tumor had severed Alyssa’s spinal cord. Her diagnosis: neuroblastoma, a nerve cell cancer that most commonly occurs in young children.
RoJeana recounts her daughter’s medical journey while shouting words of encouragement and caution from the arena gate as she watches her daughter practice with Rosie.
“We say no bad days,” RoJeana says. “I’d be lying if I’d said it was easy. On her fourth birthday, she had a stem cell transplant. She weighed 14 pounds.”
Alyssa was given a 30% chance of survival. During two-and-a-half years of treatment, she received 14 rounds of chemotherapy, two stem cell transplants and 30 rounds of radiation.
On top of a low survival rate, neuroblastoma has a high relapse rate, RoJeana explains.
After treatment, Alyssa was part of an antibody study to reduce her chance of relapse and increase her survival rate to 50%. The study is now part of the neuroblastoma treatment plan at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, where Alyssa was treated.
As a young child adapting to paralysis in her legs, Alyssa learned to navigate her new life. She underwent physical and occupational therapy to relearn everyday activities and skills. Her mom, who worked in nursing home physical therapy at the time, offered guidance.
“I didn’t want her coming out of treatment assuming everyone would cater to her,” RoJeana says as she watches Alyssa and Rosie race around a barrel. “I wanted her to come out as independent as possible. I may have overdid it. There are days when I’m like, ‘Holy nuggets!’”
Through all the treatments and therapy, Alyssa knew she was destined to find herself back in the saddle. In 5th grade, her horse dreams became a reality when she met classmate Kami Hood.
“We were doing a project, ‘What do you want to do 20 years from now,’ and I said something about I want to work with horses,” Alyssa says, noting Kami said she wanted to help her dad shoe horses.
When they went out for recess, Kami told Alyssa they should “hang out.”
“That Sunday, I go to her house,” Alyssa says. “She didn’t tell me she had horses. I show up—there’s 18 horses there. Ever since that, I have been down there every weekend.”
With her new connection to Kami’s family and a barn full of horses, Alyssa started barrel racing at 11 years old.
On horseback, Alyssa competes at local gymkhana circuits—equestrian events consisting of speed pattern racing and timed games, such as barrel racing, pole bending and obstacle courses.
With every competition, Alyssa’s skills and confidence grew.
“Before I first started riding, I wasn’t a big hang-out-with-other-people type,” Alyssa says. “But when I met Kami and started riding and connecting with horses, I started hanging out with more people at school. It just kept going from there.”
Once Alyssa hit the 10-year mark of her diagnosis, she was out of the red zone for a relapse, RoJeana says.
The disease and side effects from treatment have left Alyssa with paralysis in both legs, deafness and impaired eyesight.
“One of the reasons she rides is when she’s on a horse she’s equal to everyone,” RoJeana says. “The equestrian lifestyle gave her the confidence to keep striving and doing her best, going above and beyond every day.”
On horseback, Alyssa takes life by the reins and lets nothing stand in her way.
“When I ride, I have freedom,” Alyssa says.
Rescuing Rosie: Alyssa’s Heart Horse
Equestrians in all disciplines have stories about the horses that changed their lives. Known as a heart horse, these equines serendipitously enter their lives and lead to unbreakable connections.
Alyssa Tudor and her horse, Rosie, share this special bond.
When Alyssa’s first horse, Dodge, died suddenly, Alyssa’s mother, RoJeana, started searching for another. This led the family to Phoenix, where they looked at horses that could be the right fit for Alyssa.
Rosie was a 6-year-old red roan mare destined for slaughter in a Texas kill pen. She was given a second chance when she was rescued and hauled to her temporary home in Phoenix.
In her new environment, the scars of her past were visible as she showed her distrust in humans by keeping a safe distance whenever anyone came near.
When Alyssa and RoJeana arrived to look at horses, something about this fearful little mare drew Alyssa in.
“Rosie was sitting in the corner terrified,” Alyssa says.
Outside the pen, RoJeana and the seller were discussing the horse’s past as Alyssa was making a connection. The seller explained that Rosie exhibited signs of abuse. She would need training and a patient rider who would not use a lot of leg pressure.
As her mom talked to the seller, Alyssa closed the distance between her and Rosie. In her wheelchair, she opened the gate and entered Rosie’s pen.
“I got into the pen and walked up right to her,” Alyssa says. “I don’t know. We just clicked.”
RoJeana and the seller watched in awe as Rosie and Alyssa met.
“We were sitting around talking, and all of a sudden Alyssa’s in the pen and they’re rubbing faces together,” RoJeana says.
Rosie let Alyssa halter her and take her for a short walk along the driveway. Then Alyssa climbed on Rosie bareback for a short ride.
“She wouldn’t let anybody on her, and I got on her within the first five minutes,” Alyssa says.
In March 2019, Rosie found a new home with Alyssa. The team has been inseparable, training, practicing, competing and occasionally trail riding down to the river.
“We both understand each other,” Alyssa says. “We’re a great team.”