A passion for horses

AXIS founder lands at Rush Ranch

Judith Smith feels at home among the horses at Rush Ranch.

When Judith came to Rush Ranch eight years ago to learn carriage driving, she was the artistic director of AXIS Dance Company, an Oakland-based dance company of disabled and non-disabled artists that she co-founded.

“Going to Rush Ranch is my pressure relief,” Judith says. “I can feel my breathing change when I turn onto Grizzly Island Road. I just love being here with the horses.”

Experiences like these are possible when people protect places like Rush Ranch and work to make them accessible to all.

California or bust

Judith came home to her love of horses at Rush Ranch by learning to drive carriages with Michael Muir and Access Adventure, a non-profit headquartered at Rush Ranch that provides equine experiences for people with mobility challenges.

Judith grew up in the piney mountains of Colorado where riding and jumping horses were her life. She was training at age seventeen for the Grand Prix, the highest level of show jumping, when an accident left her paralyzed from the chest down.

After five winters of navigating Colorado in a wheelchair, she packed up her van for the warmer climes of California and settled in Berkeley, which she describes as the “epicenter of the civil rights and independent living movement for people with disabilities.”

Here in the Bay Area she found a community and discovered a love of dance. As the executive and artistic director of AXIS Dance Company, she grew the troupe into a renowned company that toured the world. She ran the dance company for 20 years, but never lost her passion for horses.

Dancing with horses

Just as dancing in a company is a team effort, so is driving carriages, and she is grateful for the time Muir and volunteer Randy Boardman took in helping her to develop her skills.

Judith has limited use of her hands, but an adaptive leather loop allows her to engage her shoulders and upper body to drive the horse and carriage.

There are other similarities between dancing and driving, Judith adds. “When you finally get something in dance, it’s in your body and not in your head. You’re moving and not thinking about moving. It can be similar when you get a perfect circle with your horse in your carriage. It’s those moments of feeling like you’ve got the precision and you’ve got the connection. There’s just a flow to it.”

Wide horizons

Judith loves the expansive views at Rush Ranch. “You can see the water and the horizon, and I love the light. It’s just a really lovely place,” she says.

As of October 2020, that view includes an improved paved parking lot for vans to unload, and an expanded permeable pathway that opens up the eucalyptus grove and the picnic area to visitors of all mobility levels.

Now that she’s retired from AXIS, Judith continues to be involved in disability equity work and co-chairs a group for dancing with disabilities through Dance USA. She also gardens, raises butterflies, goes bird watching and hikes as much as possible. But when she’s at Rush Ranch, her heart is with the horses.

“I was born with horses galloping through my blood,” she says.

By Aleta George. Photos courtesy of Tom Muehleisen, Carol Wiebe, AXIS Dance Company, and Jake Doolittle. This article first appeared in Vistas, Solano Land Trust’s print publication distributed to supporters.