Source: Text by Kristy Vanderwende • Photo by Al Ambrose
There was a time, not so long ago, that it was doubtful that Olivia Hennelly, of Franklinville, New Jersey, would live…let alone walk or ever show a horse again.
But tomorrow the 17-year-old high school senior will enter the arena at the American Quarter Horse Youth Association World Championship Show in Oklahoma City with her new show partner, Secret Sally, a 2013 sorrel mare by The Top Secret, and do just that, as she competes in the Yearling Fillies class.
Olivia’s long journey to this point started on Oct. 13, 2011. It was a normal day. Olivia, then a new freshman at Delsea Regional High School, set out to attend classes, looking forward in just a few days to chasing her dream of winning at the Quarter Horse Congress showing her mare, This Girls Got Charm.
Olivia, who had not a care in the world at the time, suddenly fell ill. She returned from school totally disoriented. She didn’t know how she had gotten home or even who she was. Her parents, Dave and Leslie Hennelly, were instantly alarmed because Olivia has always been very responsible and dedicated.
“As the day became night we really started to get nervous because she was getting worse and worse,” Leslie explained.
Olivia was taken to Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia where a spinal tap was completed along with an array of tests but by this time Olivia had suffered a stroke and started going through horrible seizures.
Her doctors were very confused by her condition. It wasn’t until a week later that one neurologist, Dr. Josep Dalmau, who had been working on a rare disease in Spain, determined along with Dr. Matt Kirscher at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia that Olivia had a very rare disease known as Anti-NMDA(N- Methyl D- Aspartate) Receptor Encephalitis. It is best defined as an autoimmune disease that occurs when antibodies turn on the brain and cause it to swell.
“He explained it to us as fireworks going off in her brain,” Leslie said. “We were looking for answers but there were none. They told us it was just pure bad luck. It is very rare.”
After months in the hospital, Olivia’s condition became worse.
“They told us to bring in a priest,” Leslie recalled. “We were devastated. She was a star athlete one day and a very sick child months later on her way down.”
Then a miracle came.
After a few months of tons of medication, chemotherapy and IVIGs, which were all experimental, Olivia’s body began to respond to the treatments and take a positive turn.
“As soon as she started to get better rehabilitation took effect. She had to learn who we were, how to walk, talk and eat all over again,” Leslie said. “With support from everyone she had recovered, which was a miracle.”
Now Olivia is most looking forward to showing Secret Sally at her first World Show and the whole family is excited.
“Olivia was due to show in 2011 when she fell sick. So when she spiked another interest this year, my husband called one of the best breeders in the Halter horse industry, Clark Rassi, and asked him what he had for our daughter to show,” Leslie said. “Clark was very accommodating to offer us one of his own fillies. So, we decided to have her experience the Youth World this year along with the Quarter Horse Congress.”
Secret Sally, by leading Halter sire The Top Secret out of Fearles Farrah, had everything the Hennellys were looking for in terms of conformation and disposition for Olivia’s new horse.
After a month of Olivia and Sally getting acquainted at home, Sally was sent to trainer John Shepherd, Holy Glen Farms in Harrington, Delaware, for show conditioning.
Shepherd describes Olivia as the most resilient young person he has ever been around.
“She just takes everything in stride,” he said. “She’s a hard worker who won’t take no for an answer. She’s determined to live life to the fullest.”
Shepherd truly believes Olivia and Sally have a real bond and is looking forward to watching them compete at the bigger shows. He has trained many talented horses for the Hennellys through the years.
“They are like family,” he said. “Olivia inspires me every day and should be an inspiration to everyone. She is a true testament to the phrase ‘never give up hope.’ To know what she has gone through and see how she has progressed, it’s nothing short of amazing!”
Competition begins today at the AQHYA World Show with Performance Halter Mares, Performance Halter Geldings and Aged Geldings at State Fair Park in Oklahoma City and continues through Aug. 9.
Click here for results, a schedule of classes and additional information on this year’s AQHYA World Championship Show : http://aqha.com/Showing/Youth-World.aspx
Click here to sign up to view a free live webcast of competition: http://www.iequine.com/events/2014/08/built-ford-tough-aqhya-world-championships/video_feeds/jim-norick-arena
Click Here for candids from the show from our reporters Courtney Archer and Courtney Borton Ament