Meet the family who started Marion County’s first therapeutic riding program

In 1980, Kathy Gray, 3, fell into a coma after being hit on the head by a horse. Forty-one years later, she now ventures into her mother’s riding stable, Stirrups’ n Strides, where she tends all 15 horses.

When asked if she has a favorite, she responds with a smile and a shrug, “I love them all.”

Kathy’s mother, Betty Gray, 73, has always had a passion for horses. She grew up on her father’s dairy farm in New York State, and once the “best day of her life” arrived – the day he sold the cows – she began herding herds. horses in his dairy barn as a high school student.

Betty then studied at the Silvermine School of Horsemanship for a year after high school before leaving to be mentored by qualified horse trainers until she met her husband in 1971 in the Florida Keys. Kathy moved to Florida to be with her future husband and the two bought land near West Highway 318 in Marion County.

Betty decided to take a break from her competitive equestrian training career after moving to Florida, but the hiatus was short-lived.

A kick changed the course of Betty and Kathy’s life wholeheartedly. The three-year-old girl had been in a coma for “a long time” and became paralyzed on the left side of her body.

“She had to start over as a newborn,” Betty said. “She couldn’t sit up, she couldn’t crawl, she couldn’t speak, she couldn’t hold her head up.”

It was only after this accident that Betty began to pursue her passion for equestrian training again, but this time with a different goal: to help people with disabilities improve their quality of life.

“As soon as Kathy got a little better I put her in front of me on a horse and it improved her balance, her trunk control, her head control – I mean, that did it all,” Betty said. . “I strongly believe in what horses could do to help people with disabilities. “

First therapeutic riding program

Three years after the accident, Betty helped create the first therapeutic riding program in Marion County. After becoming a certified therapeutic riding and driving instructor, she opened her own non-profit organization, Stirrups’ n Strides, in 2007.

“I was like, ‘You know I have this place here, why not make it a therapeutic riding program?’ Betty said.

Betty Gray, 73, places a fly mask on one of the horses in Stirrup ‘n Strides while her daughter, Kathy Gray, 44, looks at her mother with a smile. (Josie Clancy / WUFT News)

The 30-acre farm quickly grew into a center characterized by a vision of “empowering, enriching and inspiring”. Betty and her husband worked to bring her idea to life with a mixture of determination and manual labor.

Stirrups’ n Strides offers a variety of programs ranging from horseback riding to driving and competition for riders aged 4 to 80 years old. The organization continues to grow through ongoing grants, the efforts of the community and Kathy.

“We continue to develop because [Kathy] inspires me every day, ”said Betty.
Without knowing it, Betty does the same for the others.

Asked about her students, Betty immediately bursts into joy, pulls out her iPhone and navigates to her seemingly endless filmstrip filled with photographs of her riders.

“These are a few of our runners getting ready to go to Kansas City… Here is one of our boys who showed… This is a girl who recently started riding again…” Betty said as she proudly scrolled through her app. of photos.

The parents of Betty’s riders recognize this love.

Changing lives, one rider at a time

Nichole Miller is a rider with Down’s syndrome who has been riding with Betty for almost 20 years. Nichole’s mother, Donna Miller, has said that what Betty is doing is “the work of God.”

“I don’t know where I would be without Betty,” Donna said. “Stirrups’ n Strides just made a remarkable difference in Nichole’s development.”

Nichole has been riding horses since the age of 5 and has competed in and won medals at the state’s Special Olympics competitions.

Donna said that before enrolling her daughter in Stirrups’ n Strides, she didn’t have the same “fire” as most kids, but her lifestyle changed once she got on a horse.

“I look at Nichole on the horse and just amazed,” Donna said. “When she’s up there, it’s like the handicap goes away.”

Although she became a skilled rider thanks to Stirrups’ n Strides, Donna said Nichole also developed cognitively and verbally through the nonprofit organization.

Cheryl Cyr, mother of Megan Cyr who has rolled with Betty for 20 years, has also seen great improvements in her daughter since enrolling in the program.

Megan, who suffers from autism, epilepsy and mild cerebral palsy, started riding with Betty when she was 8 years old. At the time, she was able to speak, but had no conversations. That almost changed entirely after Stirrups’ n Strides.

“The first day she rode, Betty and the walkers were taking Megan back to the barn, and Megan asked Betty, ‘Are those all your horses? “It was one of the first times Megan would strike up a conversation,” Cheryl said. “I was absolutely stunned.”

Megan now rides independently and helps Betty train new horses which makes her “very proud and very happy”.

Above all, Betty’s work has an impact on her daughter Kathy.

“Stirrups’ n Strides -” Kathy said with a big smile. “It gives me a life”

Stirrups’ n Strides is raising funds to buy lights for its indoor rink and scholarships for its riders who cannot afford the program.

Clyde P. Johnson