Gordon Walker – Our Gentle Horse Whisperer

Those of us associated with PLAN are fortunate to be tethered to passion.  Our range is the life and death struggles of people who surmount labels, stigma, and ignorance, supported by the love of their friends, neighbours and families. 

A lot of this spiritual oxygen has left the room.  Gordon Walker our very own horse whisperer has died suddenly.   The PLAN family is devastated.  We've lost a treasured sidekick.  Horses were the key for Gord to come in out of the cold and into a life that brought joy and pleasure to so many.  He was a man many counted on.  He leaves an empty saddle and and even emptier place in our hearts.  A few years ago I wrote a story inspired by Gord's life – a life that inspired thousands around the world.  Here is an excerpt in his memory.


The first time I met George he told me he was afraid to die.  His wife had just passed away; his son Rick was an only child, had no friends and there was no extended family in the Greater Vancouver area. 

The first time I met Rick he wouldn’t talk to me, or look me in the eye – in fact he walked out of the room.

As I got to know him I understood why.  In his career as a client of the disability services system he had been labeled uncooperative, lazy, uncommunicative, aggressive, retarded, unreliable and incapable of working. I once saw vocational files nearly 6 inches think chronicling everything that was supposedly wrong with him; and why he couldn’t be counted on. These files would destroy anyone’s self esteem.  He had made the rounds of a variety of programs , been in and out of lots of services and while he didn’t express it – had met his fair share of social workers like me. People who made promises they couldn’t keep.

George, and a dozen other parents like him, was the inspiration to create the Planned Lifetime Advocacy Network (PLAN) – a resource to families who live with the persistent question, ‘What will happen to my child with a disability when I die?’

George and Rick were also the inspiration to change our way of thinking about disability.

It was clear Rick’s spirit had fled.  He carried around a heavy invisible back pack laden with labels, taunts, misdiagnoses, pity, prejudice and misunderstanding.

Rick believed he was worthless.  He was profoundly lonely.  He was so lonely he hardly spoke and when he did he whispered.

His words had dried up and so had his dreams.

To awaken someone’s imagination; to ignite their dreams is not easy.  It takes a special person – someone who sees beyond their disability to their gifts; someone who listens; someone who is resourceful, well connected and infused with the spirit of abundance.

We found her – a gifted young woman named Anna. PLAN retained Anna to create a circle of friends with and for Rick.

She sat for many hours in silence waiting to hear Rick’s song.  She didn’t offer suggestions or solutions.  She believed in him

One day she came to our office ecstatic.  She said, ‘I’ve got it.  I’ve got it. It’s horses.’  It turned out Rick loved everything about horses.  He wanted to ride them, to groom them, he even wanted to own his own horse.  More than anything he wanted to be a cowboy herding cattle on the range.

As PLAN assisted George with his will and estate plan, Anna began creating community connections for Rick.  She started by introducing Rick to a friend of hers who owned a horse in Southlands, a stable by the Fraser River in Vancouver.  Rick was invited to the stable to meet ‘Big Bob’ her horse – he walked ‘Big Bob’ and even went for a little ride.  It was clear he had a special connection to horses.

When you own a horse in the city two things are certain; One, horses eat a lot of hay.  Two you don’t visit as often as you intend and so you pay someone to ride, exercise, clean the stables and so on.  Either way they cost a lot of money.

Seeing Rick’s obvious comfort with ‘Big Bob’ his owner invited him to visit the stables anytime – with or without her.  Rick, who had a lot of time on his hands, took up the offer.  In fact he began to visit every day.

Soon, the owner of the stables noticed Rick’s manner with horses, noticed how he enjoyed mucking out the stalls, and rubbing down the horses more than anyone he had ever seen.  Being a wise businessman, he offered Rick a job. 

Rick still works there today – 12 years later.  In fact, when the vet comes, she insists that Rick be there.  She knows the horses are always calmest in Rick’s gentle, quiet presence. 

Others are recognizing Rick’s gifts too.  A couple of summers ago Rick’s circle of friends organized a birthday party for him in a local park.  The stables surprised Rick by parading horses at his party.  As the horses and riders cantered around the park it was a beautiful testament to how loved and treasured Rick is.

His circle of friends is one of PLAN’s largest – over 20 people strong, 8 of whom can be counted as close and dear friends. 

You can imagine the peace of mind this gives his dad.

Over time Rick has made many friends in the horse world.   One of them told him about a 250 mile cattle drive in South Eastern British Columbia and asked him along.  Rick went and has gone every summer since.  His dream has come true – he’s been a cowboy riding on the range in the mountains of British Columbia for six years

Rick, our horse whisperer had been transformed.  The nurturing power of friendship brought him to life.  Belonging and being valued made his heavy backpack of labels disappear. 

Related Resources

To read the rest of the story in the book, Creating Change, as well as chapters from Ashoka fellows around the world Download Creating-Change-Innovations-in-the-World-of-Disability_0

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  1. Sandra Zgagnor

    My sincerest condolences to Chuck and all of Gordon’s circle of family and friends.

  2. Karin Melberg Schwier

    Although I never met Gordon, I felt as though I knew him through stories like this one. In fact, he is one of my most treasured profiles in a book I am just finishing called Flourish: People with Disabilities Live Life with Passion (Inclusion Press). I am honoured to share Gordon’s story as told by Al and the lovely photo above by David Campion.I know there are not only many people who loved Gordon and will deeply miss him, but I’m sure at the stable many horses will long await the sound of his footsteps. – Karin Melberg Schwier

  3. Donna Thomson

    Oh no. Like Karin, I never met Gordon, yet over the years felt that I knew him through the PLAN story. I am one of so many who was made richer by Gordon and poorer today because of his passing. Please pass along my condolences to Gordon’s family and to his network. RIP Gordon.

  4. Jack Pealer

    Gordon and his circle did good things. Gordon was and is a great teacher about the good life and the turns it takes.

  5. Tim Ames

    Thank you so much for sharing this, last week and this weekend have been very tough. While I may have been officially Gordon’s connector actually he and I became good friends. He taught all of us in his network and others so much. He is missed already but that loss will be felt more as baseball season, then Hockey again comes and goes without Gordon to go to games with.
    Thanks again

  6. Sandra Shields

    So sorry to hear this news Al. Our sympathies to Chuck and everyone at PLAN. – Sandra & David

  7. Alexis P

    I am reading this in a little cafe in Montaione, Italy and crying as I remember Gordon, his smile and his bear hugs. I feel so privileged to have been part of the PLAN community – Bo and I send our heartfelt sympathies to Chuck and to Gordon’s community of friends. His was a dream that came true.
    Alexis and Bo

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