Her popularity has extended to the farm on Red Acre Road in Stow, where she became a fixture before she could walk. As a toddler, she only communicated through American Sign Language, which her grandmother did not understand, but there was no mistaking the meaning behind Bella’s furious signing when Patricia Willis turned her stroller away from the horses and back toward home.
“Riding has changed everything for Bella. She’s meant to do this,” Julia Dunning said during her daughter’s riding lesson on a recent Saturday morning. “It’s genetic. She got Usher syndrome, but she also got the horse gene.”
Dunning first learned to ride on Cinnamon Buns and Pooh, horses as gentle as their names convey. She moved on to First Star, and recently made her best jump — 2 feet 6 inches — on Apollo.
Dunning said that horseback riding has improved her posture and balance, and also her self-confidence through the trophies she has won in local competitions. She appreciates how her friends at the barn speak a little louder, read small print for her without being asked, and reach out with a steadying hand if she becomes “wobbly.”
In addition to this daily support, she is also touched by the enthusiasm of so many fund-raising teams dedicated to the Decibels Foundation.
“It makes me feel loved,” she said simply.
The nonprofit organization’s 11th annual golf tournament took place Monday. In addition, Bella’s 11-year-old brother, Jack, has led the “Stink Week” initiative at Blanchard Memorial School in Boxborough, where the fourth-grade classes collected $20,000 in February 2012. This year’s effort involving 600 students schoolwide raised $26,000.
While Dunning is optimistic that medical advances will halt her vision loss, she has begun using a cane as practice, and is comforted by the knowledge she’ll be able to ride horses either way. Her dream is to own her own horse farm, and to offer horseback riding as therapy for kids with autism, Down syndrome, and other special needs, but also for anyone who shares her love of the graceful animals.
“I don’t like to think about going blind. It’s scary. But I have a great family and great friends who are always willing to help me,” she said. “I’ve met so many great people, and I’ve done so many great things, that I don’t know if I would change having Usher syndrome. I’m happy with my life.”
Attendance at the Red Acre Farm show Sunday is free, but parking is extremely limited. For ways to donate and more information, visit www.stay-classy.org/horseshowfund-raiser or www.decibels-foundation.org.