Doctors didn’t expect Courtney Johnson to live past age 2. The 13-year-old was not expected to ever walk or talk because of a brain injury she suffered as a toddler. But she does walk and talk, and a lot more. Tuesday afternoon, Courtney rode a horse during an exhibition at the fourth annual Oklahoma Holiday Classic, an Oklahoma Paint Horse Club show. She was one of nine children and adults showing the benefits of therapeutic horse riding. For the past three years, fundraisers at the show have benefited therapeutic riding programs and clients like Courtney, said Kevin Hardcastle, the club’s president. Nearly $7,000 was raised in a live auction Tuesday, and profits from a silent auction would raise more, Hardcastle said. Show attendees raised $13,000 last year and $8,000 the year before. Donations from the Oklahoma City show have spurred a national therapy program with the American Paint Horse Association, Hardcastle said. The effort began when Hardcastle saw a therapeutic riding class during a pinto horse show in Tulsa. "It tugged at my heartstrings,” Hardcastle said. "I just knew that was what I had to do.”
Reaping the benefitsHorse therapy programs help clients with physical, mental and emotional problems to develop their muscles and build confidence, Hardcastle said. Lisa Johnson sees that in Courtney and her other two children who participate in horse programs. "It relaxes them,” she said. "They enjoy it.” Most of the therapy riders, including the Johnson sisters, attend the program at Harvest Farms in Shawnee. It’s free for participants, director Jackie Wilks said. About 30 to 50 students ride each Monday. They also do crafts and learn about the Bible. "It’s such a ministry for us,” said Wilks, who runs the program with her husband, who was recently diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. "We love the Lord and have been very, very blessed, and it’s an opportunity to turn around and give those blessings to other people.” Wilks has as many volunteers as she does students. The Burkhead sisters from Shawnee — Rachel, Joanna, Abigail and Mary — help by leading craft time, assisting students or cleaning up. Even for volunteers, Rachel Burkhead said, the program is a ministry. "We do it because we love God,” she said.
OKLAHOMA HOLIDAY CLASSIC
What: Fourth annual Oklahoma Holiday Classic paint horse show featuring more than 300 horses. When: Events begin at 7 a.m. daily through Saturday. Competition should end about 7 p.m. tonight, and about 10 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Where: State Fair Park, 333 Gordon Cooper Blvd. Cost: Free.