Villa Marie Claire

Amy McCambridge - Rescued Horses and End-of-Life Care

Jody McCambridge wanted to see the mustangs just one more time. The visits with them had touched her emotionally, made her feel more vibrant, and she was hoping for one more trip to the farm, only a town away.

Her body was just too weak, however; the peritoneal cancer she was battling was wreaking havoc on her system. This left Jody's daughter, Amy McCambridge-Steppe, feeling like she was letting her mother down by not getting her to the farm. So Amy decided to bring a horse to her mom.

By then, Jody was unconscious, with labored breathing. Still, Amy led Chirpa, a massive rescued mustang, up the ramp into their Ridgewood home over to Jody. Chirpa quietly bent down to smell Jody's hair, as she so often did at the barn and then just stood at her side for a few moments before going back down the ramp into the waiting trailer. To Amy's amazement, Jody's breathing became more regular, quieter. Jody seemed so much more at peace.

"I held my mom in my arms that night and she passed away," Amy said, through tears. "I knew in my heart what these horses could do for me and other veterans, but to see how it helped my mom, I know this is what I'm meant to be doing. This doesn't take away the disease but it can take away the anxiety and help people transition more peacefully."

How It Started

Amy and her husband, Mark, are both veterans who were physically and emotionally injured from their military service. They endured physical pain, depression, addiction and numerous medical treatments. Their family was floundering. Finally, they connected with rescued horses and started healing. Several years later, they started Unbridled Heroes Project, a non-profit that rescues and trains mustangs while enabling military veterans to form relationships with the horses.

"The horses were just as lost as we were, and in just as much pain," Amy said. "Some of them were so abused they wouldn't let a human touch them. But slowly, through daily interactions, we established the language of trust. Ultimately, we healed from the inside out. We believe they saved us as much as we saved them."

After the experience with her mom, Amy and Mark decided to partner Unbridled with Villa Marie Claire, the only hospice residence in northern New Jersey. Four rescued mustangs live on the 26-acre Saddle River property as part of the therapeutic rehabilitation program. This collaboration gives service members who have experienced trauma access to the horses. Soon, hospice patients and their families as well COVID-19 survivors and healthcare personnel will also be able to groom, lead and interact with the mustangs.

The Equine Benefit

"I've seen the way people respond to animals," Amy said. "I know interacting can be beneficial to both the person and the animal."

Amy knew being around the horses might help her mom but didn't realize how constructive it really would be. Jody was near the end of the two years doctors had given her to live with her disease, a rare cancer that develops in the thin layer of tissue that lines the abdomen. She was weak and not interacting much with others. Until Amy's kitten planted itself next to Jody and didn't leave.

"My mother started responding to the kitten, sitting up and petting her," Amy said. "That's what gave me the idea to take my mom to see the horses."

Amy would bring Jody in a golf cart to the middle of the field and the horses would surround her while Chirpa would put her nose into Jody's hair. The horses were gentle and quiet and almost miraculously, Jody rallied. She had a special glow about her and started going out again, meeting with her book club and taking other small excursions.

About five months later, however, doctors found another tumor and Jody started a rapid decline. It was then she asked for one more trip to the horse farm. Before they could go, she slipped into unconsciousness. Still, Amy felt Jody was hanging on, not ready to let go of life.

"I felt she held on so I could take her to the barn one last time and since I couldn't, I said let's bring a horse to her," Amy said. "It was the best thing I could have done for my mom. I really believe she knew Chirpa was there and for some reason, then, she felt it was okay to go. I believe this can work for others too – help them have a peaceful transition. If being with these horses brings some comfort to people, that is the beauty of the whole program."