HOMETOWN HERO: Don’t believe everything you think

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Hometown Hero Denise Boyett stands with one of her horse friends at the HOPE riding facility at the Island County Fairgrounds in Langley.

Don’t believe everything you think about yourself, believe more, and you’ll be able to do more than you ever thought possible.

As the program director of HOPE (Horsemanship Opportunities for Potential Equestrians), Denise Boyett inspires, encourages and teaches her students how to focus on their abilities rather than their disabilities. She does this by showing others how they can succeed at activities they never thought possible. HOPE is a volunteer-based therapeutic horseback riding program for children and adults who face medical and developmental challenges. Horseback riding stimulates physical, mental and emotional growth and teaches trust and self-discipline.

Jessica Read, a former HOPE student, says that Denise made all the difference in her life.

“I lived my first 13 years thinking about all of my disabilities and everything I couldn’t ever do. Everything I couldn’t physically do, and everything I wasn’t smart enough to do. I had horseback riding in that list of ‘could never do’ until I met Denise.

“She started filling my thoughts with my abilities. She said that I am not about my disabilities, and told me to focus on all that I can do. Through Denise and HOPE, I learned to love horses and riding. After that I started trying a bunch of new stuff and you know what? There is a whole lot more stuff I can do that

I didn’t used to think I could. I think this might be true of us all.”

It isn’t just children who benefit from Boyett’s “you can do it” attitude.

Emily Brink, a HOPE volunteer and riding instructor, writes, “Denise has helped me build my skills in horsemanship and work with the riders at HOPE as a volunteer and riding instructor. She is always patient, and was the one that was instrumental in saying ‘You can do it’ when I pursued becoming a NARHA (North American Riding for the Handicapped Association) riding instructor.”

“Denise is a tireless supporter of the children of Whidbey Island through her dedication to HOPE and 4-H,” Brink adds. “She has a wonderful compassion and genuine love for both people and horses, and this shines through in every thing she does.”

As a young child, Boyett knew that horses would be her life. Raised on a goat dairy farm in Freeland, she began riding their Nubian goats when she was 3 years old and graduated to horses at 5.

When she was 6, her parents bought her a pony she named Ranton.

“Our family went to a livestock auction, and when I saw this 6-month-old pony come out, I knew he and I were meant to be together. I raised my dad’s hand so many times that he ended up bidding against himself,” she laughs.

“I have always had a kindred spirit with horses. When I was a teenager, my horses got me through those difficult years.”

When she was 13, she began teaching riding lessons.

“I witnessed what these animals did for people. People gained confidence by riding and training a horse and then they tried other dreams they never thought feasible. Their lives were opened after they realized that they could ride and train a big animal like a horse.” Boyett was a natural listener to her peers’ problems, so she decided to become a counselor. She earned her degrees in therapeutic recreation and human services from Western Washington University and was able to put her two loves together, helping people through horses.

When asked where she got the idea to live a life of helping others, she doesn’t hesitate to talk about her mom.

“My mom never said anything about helping others — she just did it every day of her life. She took in any young person that needed a home. She took in troubled kids and kids in trouble. Oh my goodness, she took in nieces and nephews, grandchildren and strangers, and guided them into living a happy, well-adjusted and productive life. Naturally, we just grew up thinking that helping others is part of what people do in life. Mom seemed so fulfilled by helping people that I wanted to get that feeling, too.”

On lesson day, Boyett is at the HOPE building at the fairgrounds, surrounded by enthusiastic volunteers and students. She seems to be everywhere at once — the calm center of all the happy activity. She’s unruffled as she answers questions and gives directions. The volunteers and riders and even the horses seem to know that she’s in charge.

Another horse is needed, so Boyett drives home to her nearby farm to pick, one of hers.

Walking out to her large pasture, she calls each horse by name, and each one canters out of the forest to greet her. An Appaloosa mare named Jewel follows her around like a puppy and keeps poking her head through Boyett’s arms to be nuzzled. While hugging Jewel, she calls her donkey, Kiara, who gallops out with her lofty giant ears bouncing all the way. She brays loudly and comes right over to Boyett, who’s surrounded by seven horses, one donkey and her faithful dog and cat.

“You just cannot replace what a horse can do for people,” she says as she strokes their necks and heads.

“I used to tell my horse all of my frustrations and disappointments and all the heartaches when I was young, I still do. It’s so fun seeing the kids talk to the horses like a friend.”

There is a small group of kids and adults who want to have the experience of riding, but are physically unable to mount a horse. Boyett wanted to give these people a chance too, so she took three years to create a harness driving program for HOPE.

“Now everyone can experience what a horse can do for them,” she says with a big smile.

Former student Crystal (Ryan) Bagley writes: “Denise has been a model of a hero to all those who love to ride horses, or want a chance to ride horses. Denise taught me everything there was about helping special-needs kids and horses. She taught me how to ride, groom and how to compete in horse shows. We had a lot of fun too, when we went to Canada and sometimes it was very cold. But we still had a lot of fun with the horses and camping with our families.

“I hope Denise will be around for a very long time to teach others and to give them confidence. I loved riding the horses, they were my friends, and so is Denise,” she adds.

Boyett says that it’s truly fulfilling to help HOPE riders realize they can do so much more in life than they thought.

“It can be a miracle really. And the horses instinctively know they are a part of something important too.”

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