Wild at Heart
Horses help tap into Ellie's untamed spirit
By Dwain Hebda, Photography by Brian Chilson
Glenda Grimmett walked into the corral and took a deep breath. A self-proclaimed "horse girl," she loves everything about these places—the smell of the coat, the touch of a muzzle, the echo of every snort and whinny. She knows the power a 1,500-pound horse holds, in more than one sense of the word.
A former instructor here at Hearts and Hooves near Sherwood, Grimmett has watched children experience the transformative nature of hippotherapy, heard the delighted squeals and seen parents weep for joy at the sight of it.
"There’s something—I don’t know how to medically or psychologically explain it—about a relationship between a child and a horse," she said. "When I worked there, children with autism spectrum disorder would come out there and talk to a horse like they never talked to a person before. There’s some kind of magical thing that I can’t explain."
Yet for all that, coming back here had her heart beating so hard she was sure 2-year-old Ellie could somehow feel it. The little girl, her first, had already been through so much in her short life and had so far to go. Glenda and her husband, Jeff Grimmett, believed that the journey should begin here, gently, on horseback.
All of these things collided in her mind as they approached the doe-eyed horse for Ellie's first ride and sat her atop the animal. After a few safety precautions the horse was led forward in a slow, easy walk. Glenda's eyes were riveted to her daughter.
"It was like she just got the best Christmas present ever," she said. "That’s when I was like OK, this horse thing must be genetic because her eyes lit up and she started clapping. She was a natural."
The phrase "one in a million" fits Ellie Grimmett almost literally. She came into this world early and with a chromosomal duplication disorder that's so rare there are only about 500 known cases in the world. The condition affects various body systems including musculoskeletal where low muscle tone, combined with severe curvature of the spine, delayed her normal development of sitting up, crawling and walking.
Ellie's condition was a blow for the Grimmetts to absorb; made worse by the fact that the condition was so rare, it was difficult for physicians to get a handle on treatment or provide a reliable long-term prognosis.
"It took a little while for us to get a diagnosis. For the longest time we had no idea what was going on," Glenda said. "That was pretty scary. But as soon as we were able to figure out what was going on with her and know some of the things that went along with that, rather than be all upset about it, I was like well, how are we going to fix this?"
Hippotherapy immediately sprang to the top of the list for helping accelerate Ellie's development. Utilizing horses, hippotherapists help bring about amazing improvement in physical development and socialization across a range of conditions. Merely being astride a horse has benefits, but as Grimmett is quick to point out there's more science going on than meets the eye.
"There are two different types of therapy that they do out there," she said. "One is called therapeutic riding and the other is hippotherapy which is what Ellie does. Hippotherapy, if you saw it, would probably make you wonder what on earth is going on. You sit on the horse backward. You sit on the horse sideways. You lay down on the horse. All of these different positions engage different muscle responses."
The Grimmetts were committed to this type of treatment early on, but had to wait until Ellie reached Hearts and Hooves' minimum age of 2 years old. More pressing was getting the approval of her physicians. Ellie's spine had to be reinforced with special rods meant as a temporary fix until she was old enough for more substantial surgery to treat her scoliosis. These rods have to be lengthened as she grows, requiring more surgeries, so medical permission to mix horseback riding into this scenario was not a given.
But after six months of lobbying by her mother, Ellie was cleared to participate. That was five years ago, and the cumulative benefits of the Hearts and Hooves program have surpassed everyone's loftiest expectations. The toddler who could barely sit up without assistance has grown into a 7-year-old dynamo of activity, a precocious walker, runner and dancer who gives her parents and little sister, Emmy, all they can handle.
"I could see a change in her after two months," said Glenda. "We used to spend so much time in the hospital with respiratory illnesses. Once we started developing those core muscles, I think we went two years at one point without having to go in as a patient. It's made a huge difference in not only her strength but her quality of life."
Ellie's journey isn't over, but what she's done thus far gives her parents unbridled hope for the future. It's a message that Glenda, a Hearts and Hooves board member, loves to share with other parents of special needs children.
"It took some time to get there. When you have a child who’s born with medical complications there’s a grieving process that has to take place for what you thought was going to happen," she said. "That was not easy, but as Ellie continued to grow and turned into this cool little person she really helps me keep it in perspective."
"To any mom who’s got a kid that has been newly diagnosed with a disability, I would want that person to know that you’re going to have so much joy that you cannot imagine right now. So, buckle up sister, it’s going to be all right."