The sun sparkled off Betty Gray’s horse head-shaped earrings.
She watched as her students maneuvered massive beasts, their movements graceful, yet powerful.
Once some students left the saddle, though, it was more difficult to control their own walking than the animal’s strides.
Stirrups ‘n Strides Therapeutic Riding Center Inc. is a nonprofit organization that provides therapeutic horseback riding for people who are mentally or physically handicapped.
Gray, 64, has worked with horses since she was a fifth-grader living on a New York farm about 30 miles away from the Big Apple. She paid $1,200 for her first horse at age 15 in monthly $100 payments.
“I ran home from school every day to ride the horses,” she said.
When she told her high school guidance counselors she wanted to go to horsemanship school after graduation, she said they looked at her like she was crazy.
But they found a yearlong school for her in New Canaan, Conn.
Her experience with the gentle giants hasn’t always been an easy one.
On May 20, 1980, a horse kicked her toddler daughter, Kathy, in the head.
The left side of the 3-year-old’s body was paralyzed. She was in a coma for about 35 days.
When she awoke, Kathy had to re-learn how to walk, talk and — eventually — ride.
“She was a newborn baby at 3,” Gray said.
Gray kept telling people she would walk for the first time since the accident by Christmas.
She was sure of it.
On Christmas Day, Kathy walked. Her first word since the accident: “Hi.”
By 4 years old, Kathy was back on a horse.
Now, Kathy is a three-time horseback riding national champion. Kathy earned her titles at the United Professional Horsemen’s Association’s Exceptional Challenge Cup Championship in Kansas City.
“She’s my miracle,” Gray said.
Gray helped hundreds of other children, too, like Sheryl Cyr’s daughter.
Cyr, 41, helped her daughter, Megan, learn to ride horses when she was 8 years old. Megan, 19, is autistic and has cerebral palsy.
When she was younger, doctors said she would never walk or interact with people.
But Megan was always able to connect with animals.
“Autism has its advantages and disadvantages,” Cyr said.
Megan, with long brown hair, glasses and what seems a constant smile, is training seven dogs and 10 rescue cats. Many of the animals show up in her yard; other people leave animals at her doorstep.
So when Cyr was at a Christmas parade with her daughter and saw a sign hanging off a horse for therapeutic horseback riding, she ran after the horse to write down the phone number written on the sign.
Once Megan began riding horses, her self-esteem grew, and she started to open up to more than just her family and animals.
The first thing Megan said to someone who wasn’t a family member was to Betty Gray: “Are all of these horses yours?”
After two weeks of riding, Megan competed. In her first competition, Megan placed third, “out of three.”
“This is the happiest day of my life,” her mom remembered she said.
Now, Megan has won the national champion title in Kansas City twice.
Before she started to ride, Megan wouldn’t talk and had trouble relating to people.
“You can’t shut her up now,” she said. “This is her thing. This is her out.”
Cyr said she saw her daughter not only develop mentally, but physically.
Cyr, a nurse at Pediatric Health Choice in Gainesville, said when you ride a horse, your body mimics the motion of the horse, which strengthens muscles.
She said children with physical disabilities especially benefit from horses because, many times, their muscles are either too tight or too weak to use properly.
People who are disabled improve their postures and, in some cases, gain the ability to walk, she said.
“It’s a full-body workout in an hour,” Cyr said. “The kids don’t know they’re working out.”
Not only is it good for her, but Megan loves it.
“It makes me feel like a superhero, being higher than everyone,” Megan said. “It feels like you’re on another planet.”
Contact Benjamin S. Brasch at email@example.com.
Kathy Gray, 35, of Citra, Fla., rides Barney at the High Times Ranch, a therapeutic horse ranch.
Betty Gray, 64, tends to Barney at the High Times Ranch. Barney won multiple national championships with various disabled riders.