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Good to Know: Cowgirl, 95, gets bucket-list wish for one last horse ride

Opal Hagerty, 95, of Escondido meets Blossom, a

Opal Hagerty, 95, of Escondido meets Blossom, a 16-year-old Belgian draft horse, before a carriage ride in Temecula.  Credit: San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS/Pam Kragen

When 95-year-old Opal Hagerty showed up for her horse-drawn carriage ride in Temecula, California, she was nattily dressed in a fringed suede jacket and a cowboy hat.

For much of the Escondido cowgirl’s life, horseback riding had been a hobby and a passion. But age and health issues forced Hagerty and her late husband, Donald Gale Hagerty, to sell their horses more than 20 years ago, so it had been decades since she even had the opportunity to pet a horse. So when she got the chance to fulfill her bucket-list wish for one last horse ride, the widowed mother of three was determined to dress for the occasion, which came off without a hitch.

“It was the most beautiful ride I ever had,” she said afterward. “I’ll remember it for the rest of whatever life I have left.”

Hagerty is the latest recipient of the Dreams Do Come True program at Cypress Court Retirement Center in Escondido, where she has lived since 2011. Over the past five years, Cypress Court Wellness Director Judy Lucous has granted more than a half-dozen residents’ wishes. Grantees, many of them on hospice or disabled, have gone for bike rides, a hot-air balloon ride, a motorcycle ride, a boat trip and a shopping excursion.

Sometimes the residents have a hard time figuring out what they want most, but Hagerty has never wavered. For nearly 10 years, she has been telling anyone who asked that she wanted to ride a horse one more time. But because she has limited mobility and relies on an oxygen tank, the excursion didn’t seem safe or feasible. Then, Mark and Marika Matson of Temecula Carriage Co. offered Hagerty a free horse-drawn carriage ride through the city’s vineyards, and the date was set.

“I have wanted to ride horses all my life,” Hagerty said of her equine passion. “I always found it wonderful sitting up on a horse and being able to look at everything around me. I loved the freedom of it.”

Hagerty was born and raised in Long Beach, where she discovered her love of horses in junior high school when she took lessons in English saddle riding. Around the same time, she met her future husband, Don, a junior high classmate, but it would be some years before they were able to marry.

When Pearl Harbor was bombed in 1941, he enlisted in the Navy and served in the submarine corps. While stationed at the Pearl Harbor base during World War II, he was injured and spent time in a hospital recuperating. During his hospitalization in January 1945, his submarine, the USS Seawolf, was lost at sea with 100 men aboard, making him the sub’s only surviving crewman, Hagerty said.

After the war, the couple married and had three children. They bought a home in Buena Park and bought their first horses, which they rode through the dry riverbeds of what was then mostly rural Orange County. Meanwhile, he worked for McDonnell-Douglas, testing the strength and stability of airplane parts in wind tunnels. After raising their children, Opal worked in the office at a vocational school. In 1997, they retired and moved to Tehachapi, where they rode horses together every day.

As they got older and their health declined, the Hagertys were forced to sell their home and horses in Tehachapi and move closer to family in Escondido in 2010. A year later, they moved into Cypress Court, where Don died in 2014 at the age of 92. Opal said being around a horse again brought back pleasant memories of her many happy years with her husband.

Mark Matson said he was touched by Hagerty’s story so he and his wife, Marika, wanted to make her wish come true. They started their company in 2007 with one draft horse and a carriage, and over the years the business has expanded to include 12 horses and eight carriages.

Since Hagerty’s ride was a wish-fulfillment, the Matsons arrived in a Cinderella-style carriage drawn by Blossom, a 16-year-old Belgian draft horse. After giving Hagerty time to kiss and pet Blossom for a few minutes, they went on an hourlong ride through 109 acres of vineyards and olive groves at the Carter Estate Winery.

Lucous said she’s now working on fulfilling a wish for an 85-year-old resident who raced cars in her younger years and would like to drive a race car again before she dies. Most of the wishes have been fulfilled free of charge by local organizations and businesses.

“I don’t know how we’ll do that, but we’ll find a way,” Lucous said.

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