In 1980, 3-year-old Kathy Gray laid in a coma after being kicked in the head by a horse. Forty-one years later, she now ventures around her mother’s riding center, Stirrups ‘n Strides, caring for the 15 horses there.
Asked if she has a favorite, she responds with a smile and a shrug, “I love them all.”
Kathy’s mother, 73-year-old Betty Gray, had always had a passion for horses. She spent her childhood on her father’s dairy farm in New York state, and once the “best day of his life” came — the day he sold the cows — she began boarding 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 skilled horse trainers until she met her husband in 1971 in the Florida Keys. Kathy moved to Florida to be with her soon-to-be husband and the two purchased land off West Highway 318 in Marion County.
Betty decided to stray away from her career in competitive horseback training after making the move to Florida, but this pause was short-lived.
One kick unreservedly altered Betty and Kathy’s life course. The three-year-old was in a coma for “a long time” and became paralyzed on the left side of her body.
“She had to start over like a newborn baby,” Betty said. “She couldn’t sit up, she couldn’t crawl, she couldn’t talk, she couldn’t hold her head up.”
It was not until this accident that Betty began to pursue her passion of horseback training once again, but this time, with a different focus – helping those with a disability improve their quality of life.
“As soon as Kathy was a little bit better, I put her up in front of me on a horse and it improved her balance, her trunk control, her head control – I mean, it just did everything,’” Betty said. “I am a firm believer in what horses could do to help the people with disabilities.”
First therapeutic riding program
Three years after the accident, Betty helped create the first therapeutic horseback riding program in Marion County. After becoming a certified therapeutic riding and carriage instructor, she opened her own non-profit, Stirrups ‘n Strides, in 2007.
“I said to myself, ‘You know, I’ve got this place here, why don’t I turn it into a therapeutic riding program?’” Betty said.
The 30-acre farm soon became a center characterized by the vision to “empower, enrich and inspire.” Betty and her husband worked to bring her idea to fruition with a mixture of determination and manual labor.
Stirrups ‘n Strides offers a variety of programs ranging from horseback riding, driving and competition for riders ranging from age 4 to 80. The organization continues to grow thanks to continuous grants, efforts from the community and Kathy.
“We keep expanding because [Kathy] inspires me every day,” Betty said.
Unknowingly, Betty does the same for others.
When asked about her students, Betty immediately becomes animated with joy, whips out her iPhone and navigates to her seemingly endless camera roll filled with photographs of her riders.
“These are some of our riders getting ready to go in Kansas City…Here’s one of our boys that showed…This is a girl who recently started riding again…,” Betty said while proudly scrolling through her photos app.
Betty’s riders’ parents recognize this love.
Changing lives, one rider at a time
Nichole Miller is a horseback rider with down syndrome who has been riding with Betty for almost 20 years. Nichole’s mother, Donna Miller, said that what Betty does is “God’s work.”
“I don’t know where I would be without Betty,” Donna said. “Stirrups ‘n Strides has just made a remarkable difference in Nichole’s development.”
Nichole has been riding since she was 5 years old and has competed and medaled in State Special Olympics competitions.
Donna said that prior to enrolling her daughter into Stirrups ‘n Strides, she did not have the same “fire” that most children did, but her lifestyle changed once she got on a horse.
“I watch Nichole on the horse, and I am just in awe,” Donna said. “When she’s up there it’s like the disability goes away.”
Despite becoming a skilled rider through Stirrups ‘n Strides, Donna said that Nichole has also developed cognitively and verbally thanks to the non-profit organization.
Cheryl Cyr, mother of Megan Cyr who has been riding with Betty for 20 years, has also seen vast improvements within her daughter since enrolling her in the program.
Megan, who has 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 did not carry-on conversations. This changed almost entirely after Stirrups ‘n Strides.
“On her first day of riding Betty and the side-walkers were bringing Megan back up to the barn, and Megan asked Betty, ‘Are these all of your horses?’ That was one of the first times Megan had ever initiated in a conversation,” Cheryl said. “I was absolutely floored.”
Megan now rides independently and assists Betty in training new horses which makes her feel “very proud and very happy.”
Most of all, Betty’s work impacts her daughter Kathy.
“Stirrups ‘n Strides -” Kathy said with a big smile. “It gives me a life.”
Stirrups ‘n Strides is fundraising to purchase lights for its covered riding rink and scholarships for its riders who cannot afford the program.