Thursday, June 20, 2024

Horses of Hope - This one is for Crystal

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Crystal Chevelle mounts her golden steed. Frid, a 28-year-old Norwegian Fjord, gently accepts his rider. They know each other. Atop her horse, Chevelle transforms. She raises her head. Her back straightens. A broad smile spreads across her face. She owns this arena.

Usually, Chevelle looks up at everyone else. After suffering a severe Jet Ski collision at age 17, she’s been wheelchair bound. A former rodeo queen, Chevelle slips back in the saddle every Monday. For a few fleeting moments, she sits atop the world. “Miracles (happen) every day and I like to use not only miracles but magic,” says Susan Wall, who has volunteered at Wenatchee’s Alatheia Therapeutic Riding Center for about six years. “Nobody comes here and doesn’t walk away feeling a sense of gratitude and joy. I don’t know who gets more out of it, the riders, or the volunteers.” The staff and volunteers of Alatheia match Chevelle’s smile inside the arena. She dons a black helmet and a pink brace while grasping a makeshift steering apparatus made of PVC pipe and old tennis balls. Chevelle has been a regular Alatheia rider for half a decade and has arrived today for her weekly dose of freedom. Perched upon a postcard worthy hillside above the Lower Sunnyslope area, Alatheia is a nonprofit organization that provides therapeutic equine care for children and adults with disabilities. Chevelle represents the many riders who have found hope and healing through the physical, emotional and mental benefits of saddling horses. “When they get on the horse, they just glow. Even if they don’t improve, just seeing them out in nature and fresh air and feeling a sense of being in control, there’s a lot of physical and emotional benefits,” Wall said. “Some are hard to articulate because they just happen and you don’t even necessarily realize it.”

A forgotten prayer

During the winter of 2010, Nancy Grette shivered as she chipped ice from a water trough at her home on Sleepy Hollow Heights. Her adult children had all flown from the nest leaving Grette and her husband Glenn with the horses. She needed some direction. 

“I had these amazing horses that as a family we had enjoyed and loved them, but I got to the point where I was breaking frozen manure and breaking ice out of the water through,” she said, recalling offering a prayer that day. “Lord, give me either a heart that just can be done and say goodbye and let them go, or do something else with my life or give me a vision.”

Months went by and memory of that prayer dissipated in Grette’s heart. About six months later, some family friends, the McPhersons, asked if their five-year-old daughter Ella could ride a horse for her fifth birthday. Living with spina bifida since birth, Ella transformed. Grette’s prayer had been answered. “When she got on the horse after being with her little walker, the empowerment that we saw and the possibility that we saw with her was just mind blowing,” Grette recalled. “We knew that we needed to pursue it.”

Not working at the time, she could research equine care and visit other facilities. Grette already had the infrastructure and the horses. What started as a favor to a friend became a mission.

In June of 2011, the Grettes opened Alatheia’s gates, from their home on Sleepy Hollow Heights, to 12 riders. Used by the apostle Paul in Ephesians 4:15, alatheia is a Greek word meaning “disclosed truth.” The Grettes have been horse people for years, but are also people people with a heart for special needs riders. “So, Alatheia then was born,” she said. “The name came after we knew that we were going to do this, and had thought about it, prayed about it.”

97 Days

As she prepared for life after high school, Chevelle viewed a horizon of hope. She had been named Miss USA and competed for high honors in barrel racing. A young woman of many talents, she had applied for a vocal scholarship at a Nashville college. Bright colors painted her future. Yet dark clouds would shroud that horizon. 

One day, Chevelle shared a summer vacation with her family on Moses Lake. She mounted a vehicular steed: a Jet Ski. While skipping across the water, she collided with another Jet Ski. She spent seven minutes facedown under water and was airlifted to Sacred Heart Medical Center in Spokane. The impact tore her brain from her skull. She suffered a bruised heart, several brain injuries, a broken sternum, a collapsed lung and she broke her jaw in seven places.

Her family’s hearts were also bruised. Doctors told them she would be forever brain dead. She would never smile again. They suggested the family withdraw life support, but her parents refused. Their daughter lay in a coma for 96 days without signs of improvement. On the 97th day, Chevelle’s mother tickled her foot inducing a smile. Three days later, her family brought home on her 18th birthday.

Since the accident, Chevelle has been involved in intense speech, occupational and physical therapy. Her time at Alatheia has helped her regain physical strength and confidence.

“When we started with her, we had six people helping her. Now we’re down to three, and that just shows the growth and improvement and strength,” Wall said. “It’s a lot of core strength, which for somebody like her in a wheelchair is just necessary.”

Horses of hope

So, how do horses help? Grette says that their walking gait closely simulates that of humans.

“As the horse is swinging the pelvis of a human, it simulates walking for those people who have never walked before,” Grette says. “For every minute a person is on the back of a horse that’s moving, there are 100 balance accommodations that occur in the body. And each of those balance accommodations, the switching of the small and the larger fibers, end up developing strength.” The horses’ personalities, as it were, also make a difference. Norwegian Fjords are typically calm, mild animals and not easily spooked. This combination makes them apt companions for Alatheia’s riders. “Here, it’s a beautiful outdoor setting, fresh air, horses that are so in tune with the rider,” Wall said. “They will respond to if the rider’s happy or sad, scared, comfortable.” Alatheia ministers to 105 riders ages three to 93. Its clients have a range of conditions including, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, Rett syndrome, multiple sclerosis autism and epilepsy. Additionally, Alatheia has a program called Warriors & Horses, which helps veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The staff consists of five part-time instructors and a volunteer base which has grown from 25 to nearly 100 who share the workload along with a dozen Norwegian Fjords.

While Grette is well versed in equine matters, learning about the various disabilities of her clients has provided unique hurdles. She feels grateful to be affiliated with national organizations Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH) and the Norwegian Fjord Horse Registry (NFHR). This has helped to educate Alatheia’s staff on the conditions of their clients and to receive advice from professionals. She said that PATH helps, “sets codes and standards, also provides us with precaution and indication for particular disabilities that we might need to take more care on. Much of what we learned is by experience, experimenting a lot with what works and does not work.”

Alatheia’s success has seen it outgrow its facility. With a wait list of 60 people, the center expects to have around 150 riders eventually. Alatheia’s current location is limited by acreage and parking availability. Looking for arena and barn expansion, the Grettes recently purchased 12 acres off of Easy Street which will become Alatheia’s new home in 2025.

“You don’t just come for 10 weeks and then you’re done,” Grette said. “The repeated exposure is what provides the most benefit. Once we get to the new location, we’ll be able to serve so many more people and veterans.”

Trotting Forward

Chevelle is running out of time. Just a few more seconds. While country music emanates from a smart phone, the team gathers around her as she navigates the final two barrels. Engaging in her favorite competition, barrel racing, she leads Frid around the last barrier. A volunteer states the time: “40.48 seconds. ”Chevelle celebrates with everyone. It’s a personal record. Her session now completed, she dismounts Frid with help and eases back into her wheelchair after riding high. Chevelle’s future, and her present, are still bright. The hues of her horizon are simply different shades than the colors of years ago, but the view remains breathtaking. Here in a dusty arena upon a hillside, the former rodeo queen reigns again.

For more information or to donate, please visit alatheiaridingcenter.org.

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