Chloe had been in perfect health. At first, the slight limp caused little concern.
Ashlyn Head couldn't wait to get home from school to run her through the lush hills around her neighborhood near Dade City. She loved this 22-year-old black thoroughbred/quarter horse mix who had carried her to a room full of medals and ribbons in racing competition.
At age 10, Ashlyn rode Chloe to help patients at Gulfside Regional Hospice. They earned $500 in pledges, more than anyone else. The next two years, riding with the Pasco Sheriff's Mounted Posse, they more than tripled that figure. Ashlyn carried the American flag to lead the Ride for Hospice. She felt proud, but at such a tender age she didn't fully appreciate the mission of the charity she supported.
That soon would change.
When Chloe's limp got worse in September 2011, Ashlyn's grandmother, Judy Tyler, called a veterinarian. Chloe had laminitis, a disease that causes chronic inflammation and pain in horses' feet. She would not get better.
Ashlyn, then 12, made the decision. She could not allow Chloe to suffer. Her grandfather, Ed Tyler, drove a tractor to the back of their property and dug a deep hole. Ashlyn led Chloe to what would become a grave moments after the veterinarian's injection. Ashlyn marked it with a cross full of hearts and a message: "I will always love you.''
"After Chloe died, I didn't want another horse. I didn't want to ride anymore,'' Ashlyn said last week. "I just felt so bad. My friends and family helped me get through it.''
• • •
Ashlyn had already been lauded for her contributions to hospice. Now she had a personal view of the comforting and counseling that is so important to those dealing with the death of a love one.
The Tylers found her a new horse, a 6-year-old chocolate brown Appaloosa/thoroughbred mix gelding named Mocha. Just as she had done with Chloe, Ashlyn rode Mocha in barrel race and pole bend competitions and at the Ride for Hospice. She collected more than $1,200 in each of the last two campaigns for a five-year total of $6,500.
"Ashlyn is amazing,'' said Gulfside president Linda Ward. "It has been such a pleasure to watch her grow into such a beautiful, compassionate young lady.''
Ashlyn and her mother, Christina Head, a manager with Ruby Tuesday in Tampa, moved in with the Tylers in part so she could afford to attend the East Pasco Adventist Academy. She's a straight-A student about to enter the ninth grade. Her goal after high school is to attend the University of Florida and study veterinary science.
Last week, she helped her grandmother conduct one of her regular five-day horse camps for girls 7 to 13. Tyler, who originated the Ride for Hospice along with her friend Kym Corkum, grew up on the property and has always had horses. She also rides with the sheriff's posse.
Ashlyn was excited about the latest girls camp, because this time she had a title: counselor. "She's more than ready to teach other kids,'' Tyler said.
• • •
One day recently, Ashlyn waited until the sun dropped a bit before leading Mocha from his stall. It was still hot, so she rode bareback. "Mocha likes it better this way,'' she said.
Usually she rides to music, with her taste ranging from Christian to '80s rock n' roll. She likes Aerosmith, Bon Jovi and Journey. At the end of the ride, Mocha snorted loudly to get attention. He wanted his treat — a lime green ice pop.
Ashlyn's room reflects the obvious. Shelves line her walls and every square inch includes a miniature ceramic or plastic horse, even one or two unicorns. Medals, ribbons and trophies take up the rest of the room, along with acrylic paintings Ashlyn created — yes, of horses.
She can't wait to turn 18 so she can join the sheriff's posse. In the meantime, she has set another lofty goal for the hospice.
You can bet on her making it.