Health & Environment

The Magic Of Horses

Texas A&M's equine therapy program is changing the lives of veterans and people with disabilities
By Jeannie Ralston, Texas A&M Foundation August 1, 2018

a photo of a boy with disabilities petting a horse
Texas A&M Foundation

It was not immediately obvious that something transformative was happening under the roof of Freeman Arena.

Two boys, ages 9 and 11, rode horses slowly around the sandy ground. Three adults, one on either side and one in front holding the lead, walked alongside each horse. A woman called out to the boys, asking them to turn the horse in one direction or another, or move forward or stop. The boys calmly obeyed.

Watching from the railing was their mother, Xochitl Flores, whose eyes never left her sons. “We take this home with us,” she said, nodding. “It’s a huge leap forward.” Flores explained that both boys are on the Autism spectrum and that nothing has brought them out like these therapeutic riding sessions, which are offered free of charge through Courtney Cares, an initiative to build the Equine Assisted Activities and Therapy (EAAT) Program at Texas A&M University. Her younger son Necalli is non-verbal; her older son Cuit is selectively mute. But lately it seems their behaviors are changing.

“Necalli used to stare at me when I asked him something; now when I ask for a hug, he’ll hug me,” she said. “Cuit’s temperament has improved, and he’s more mellow.” After a recent session, when she asked Cuit how he liked the horseback riding, he whispered, “It was awesome.” She reported that even though her sons can’t generally distinguish days of the week, they sense when their horse therapy sessions are approaching and are eager to leave the house.

As the boys pass by their mom toward the end of their 45-minute session, Xochitl notices a strange alignment of Cuit’s lips. “Oh, look at that, he’s smiling. My baby is smiling,” she cried with joy. “It’s just magic.”

But the magic of Courtney Cares doesn’t end there. There has been magic and serendipity woven throughout the six-year program. “From the very beginning, it’s been incredible how the pieces of Courtney Cares have come together,” said Dr. Nancy Krenek, a physical therapist, hippotherapy clinical specialist and executive director of Courtney Cares, who also runs ROCK (Ride On Center for Kids), a therapy center in Georgetown, Texas. She sees nothing but great opportunity ahead. “In the next five years, Texas A&M is going to be known throughout the equine assisted activities and therapy industry.”

The Courtesy of Courtney Cares

Courtney Grimshaw ’85 loved horses. Growing up outside of Colorado Springs, she got her first horse in high school. When she was attending Texas A&M, she had an experience that sparked a dream for her: She helped a friend’s son, who had a debilitating disease, learn to ride. “The child’s mother said it was the first time he did anything other kids could do,” said Dee Grimshaw, Courtney’s mother. “It was so rewarding for her.” Seeing the change in the boy planted Courtney’s dream of someday having a horse camp for kids. “She thought a horse could cure everything,” Dee continued. “Really that was the bottom line.”

But the idea of a camp was sidelined as Courtney, who was an animal science major at Texas A&M and earned an MBA in accounting from The University of Texas, built an impressive career in international finance—much of it spent in Kazakhstan as the tax partner for the global region of PricewaterhouseCoopers. When she wasn’t negotiating new business opportunities for the developing country, Courtney rode dressage horses, which she bought from a breeder in Poland. In 2010, after 12 years in Kazakhstan, she was preparing to return to Texas to live. She built a home on acreage near the small town of Thorndale—between Austin and College Station—and started erecting a state-of-the-art horse barn, which would have been ideal for that children’s horseback riding camp she’d planned.

But then just months before leaving Kazakhstan, Courtney passed away unexpectedly at age 46, leaving her family and friends devastated. “We felt a huge hole in our lives,” said Dee. “We had to do something for her, something to help people. That’s what she would do.” Collectively, the Grimshaw family sold her property in Thorndale and used the proceeds to establish an equine therapy program at Texas A&M.

“We connected the dots and decided this would be an ideal way to honor her,” said Jim Grimshaw, Courtney’s younger brother. “This is our way of perpetuating her spirit and making something good come out of our terrible loss.”

Because Courtney was such a fervent Aggie, the family reached out to The Texas A&M University System. “From the word ‘go’, all the pieces came together in a way that continues to surprise and delight us, especially since the program supports the values of Texas A&M—research, education and service,” said Jim. “It seems like Courtney was guiding the process. Serendipity is the word that comes to mind when we talk about it. Things just seemed meant to be.”

Continue reading on the Texas A&M Foundation’s Spirit Magazine website.

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