GRANGEVILLE, Idaho – The road to recovery can be rocky, but for Jennifer Wagner the journey has been eased by the four-legged beasts she has met along the way.
Just six months ago Wagner was within days of death. These days Wagner is making slow, shaky progress at a ranch near Grangeville that specializes in therapy for children and adults, using horses to strengthen bodies and minds.
Living in Coeur d’Alene, Wagner was a 45-year-old sales executive who had been suffering flulike symptoms. She had guzzled so much water that she stripped her body of sodium, fell into a seizure and suffered a stroke.
She was rushed to the hospital, but in the process of being treated Wagner suffered severe brain damage.
“She was totally paralyzed on one side,” said her mother, Eleanor “Poofy” Wagner, of Grangeville. “They sent us home and told me she would die within two weeks.”
Wayne Hollopeter, Wagner’s doctor, said when the family brought her back to Grangeville her right arm was flaccid and she had little movement in her right leg.
“She really wasn’t taking in any fluids or any nutrition orally, and she was babbling and I couldn’t understand anything,” the doctor said.
Hollopeter did not expect Wagner to survive. But after researching the condition, he thought there might be a chance.
“With the brain, we don’t completely understand,” Hollopeter said. “I wasn’t convinced (Wagner would recover) but I didn’t know. I said, ‘Let’s give her a couple weeks and see what happens.’
“After a couple weeks she was starting to rally.” By that time, there was enough improvement that Hollopeter called the Elks Rehabilitation Hospital in Boise, where Wagner underwent intensive physical and speech therapy.
After a few weeks in Boise, Wagner returned home. Although her life was no longer in danger, she was far from out of the woods. Her physical and mental capacities were severely limited and her mother began searching for ways to help her regain the skills she had lost.
That’s when she was pointed toward Julie Larish’s RJ Ranch and riding center, which specializes in horse therapy for disabled children and adults.
When Wagner started coming to the ranch, located along U.S. Highway 95 just south of Grangeville, she was using a walker, Larish said.
“She was very unsteady. She couldn’t back up or stoop down and she was leaning on the horses,” Larish said.
“Her conversations were difficult. She would mix time periods and sentences, but as she started working with the horses and getting into the rhythm and riding the horses she started thinking more and remembering more about her childhood horse.”
Hippotherapy, from the Greek word “hippos” for horse, uses the multidimensional movements of a horse to treat patients who suffer from muscle or movement dysfunction. It’s said to improve balance, posture, mobility and function.
Larish, who has worked with disabled children and adults for many years, moved to Grangeville from California five years ago. She opened her riding center last July as part of a promise to herself after the breakup of her marriage to help children have a safe place.
“There’s so much power in the horse,” Larish said. “I’ve always loved putting kids and horses together because I’ve always seen a huge jump in self-esteem.
“This just sort of evolved. And the more I found out how many autistic children we have, and elderly that had to give up their horses, the more I thought this was the perfect program.”
Larish started out with two Arab horses and continues to add to her herd. Several of the horses are leased from other owners.
One of the reasons Larish favors her Arab horses is because they have a natural tendency to lean into the rider if he is unstable while trying to get up on the animal.
That’s what happened with Jennifer Wagner. The horses seemed to sense where she needed support and were able to help her regain her confidence and her balance.
Wagner struggles with communication, but she is enthusiastic about how much being around the horses and Larish’s ranch has helped in her slow recovery.
“The horses, I think they’re going to be honorable to me,” Wagner said. “I trust them. And if they have a bad day, so do I have a bad day, it’s not their fault. And when I’m (frustrated). And I haven’t ever felt that way here. I felt really good.”
After Wagner works out, she helps Larish with some of the other clients. She rounds up the animals from the pasture and shovels manure from the barnyard.
Whether she’ll ever be able to return to her former way of life is questionable, but Wagner said she may have found a new direction.
“I want to help other people and I’m getting better every day. Because I’m out here and I’m mowing lawns and I’m doing things. I have to go get the horse. I have to tie them up. And it’s a lot of patience.
“I’m not very fast and I’m not very good, but I can get it. I’ve got to be patient with myself.”