When riding enthusiast Nina lost the use of her legs, it looked as though she’d never be able to enjoy her favorite activities again. Elizabeth, a competition gymnast, says she contemplated suicide after an accident left her disabled. Tim lost both legs serving in the Middle East and figured he’d never be able to ride trails with his wife the way they used to.
But John Gray, a master saddle maker in tiny Horseshoe Bend, Arkansas, put them all back in the saddle. “I consider it a privilege to watch people achieve their goals,” he says. “And I consider it an honor that I can help.”
John followed in his father’s footsteps in the saddle making business, but he learned how to fashion therapeutic ones by trial and error. At first he simply adapted standard models, until he found a saddletree maker willing to customize the frame to meet the needs of each rider.
Many of John’s saddles have backrests and seat belts. For Tim, he made a bucket seat similar to an old-fashioned sidesaddle. A client who wanted to ride in the Mardi Gras parade needed a saddle with head and chest restraints. Each story is different, but they all touch your heart. All these riders have come through life-changing experiences with the determination to keep doing the things they love.
Elizabeth raised the money to pay for her saddle by getting several country music personalities to sign a guitar, then auctioning it off. Nina is competing in shows again—after helping to start a show class for disabled riders. “Help me onto my horse, and I can take it from there,” she says.
[pullquote] All these riders have come through life-changing experiences with the determination to keep doing the things they love. [/pullquote]
“I’m so happy I could help,” John adds. “Nina has always been a good rider, and her disability hasn’t slowed her down.”
According to an old saying, “The outside of a horse is good for the inside of a man.” With John’s help, disabled riders reap the benefits of pleasure riding and showing. Handling a big animal isn’t just great exercise; it also gives the rider a feeling of accomplishment. You feel empowered on the back of a horse. If you can control such a large creature, perhaps you can have some control over your own destiny.
Angels don’t always have a halo and wings; sometime they come dressed in faded jeans and cowboy boots. As long as there are men like John Gray, the cowboy way of life will live forever.