The Magic

of Horses


Texas A&M’s equine therapy program is changing the lives of veterans and people with disabilities.

Oh, look at that, he’s smiling. My baby is smiling. It’s just magic.


It was not immediately obvious that something transformative was happening under the roof of Freeman Arena.

Two boys, ages 9 and 11, rode horses slowly around the sandy ground. Three adults, one on either side and one in front holding the lead, walked alongside each horse. A woman called out to the boys, asking them to turn the horse in one direction or another, or move forward or stop. The boys calmly obeyed.

Watching from the railing was their mother, Xochitl Flores, whose eyes never left her sons. “We take this home with us,” she said, nodding. “It’s a huge leap forward.” Flores explained that both boys are on the Autism spectrum and that nothing has brought them out like these therapeutic riding sessions, which are offered free of charge through Courtney Cares, an initiative to build the Equine Assisted Activities and Therapy (EAAT) Program at Texas A&M University. Her younger son Necalli is non-verbal; her older son Cuit is selectively mute. But lately it seems their behaviors are changing.

“Necalli used to stare at me when I asked him something; now when I ask for a hug, he’ll hug me,” she said. “Cuit’s temperament has improved, and he’s more mellow.” After a recent session, when she asked Cuit how he liked the horseback riding, he whispered, “It was awesome.” She reported that even though her sons can’t generally distinguish days of the week, they sense when their horse therapy sessions are approaching and are eager to leave the house.

As the boys pass by their mom toward the end of their 45-minute session, Xochitl notices a strange alignment of Cuit’s lips. “Oh, look at that, he’s smiling. My baby is smiling,” she cried with joy. “It’s just magic.”

But the magic of Courtney Cares doesn’t end there. There has been magic and serendipity woven throughout the six-year program. “From the very beginning, it’s been incredible how the pieces of Courtney Cares have come together,” said Dr. Nancy Krenek, a physical therapist, hippotherapy clinical specialist and executive director of Courtney Cares, who also runs ROCK (Ride On Center for Kids), a therapy center in Georgetown, Texas. She sees nothing but great opportunity ahead. “In the next five years, Texas A&M is going to be known throughout the equine assisted activities and therapy industry.”

The Courtney of Courtney Cares

Courtney Grimshaw ’85 loved horses. Growing up outside of Colorado Springs, she got her first horse in high school. When she was attending Texas A&M, she had an experience that sparked a dream for her: She helped a friend’s son, who had a debilitating disease, learn to ride. “The child’s mother said it was the first time he did anything other kids could do,” said Dee Grimshaw, Courtney’s mother. “It was so rewarding for her.” Seeing the change in the boy planted Courtney’s dream of someday having a horse camp for kids. “She thought a horse could cure everything,” Dee continued. “Really that was the bottom line.”

But the idea of a camp was sidelined as Courtney, who was an animal science major at Texas A&M and earned an MBA in accounting from The University of Texas, built an impressive career in international finance—much of it spent in Kazakhstan as the tax partner for the global region of PricewaterhouseCoopers. When she wasn’t negotiating new business opportunities for the developing country, Courtney rode dressage horses, which she bought from a breeder in Poland. In 2010, after 12 years in Kazakhstan, she was preparing to return to Texas to live. She built a home on acreage near the small town of Thorndale—between Austin and College Station—and started erecting a state-of-the-art horse barn, which would have been ideal for that children’s horseback riding camp she’d planned.

But then just months before leaving Kazakhstan, Courtney passed away unexpectedly at age 46, leaving her family and friends devastated. “We felt a huge hole in our lives,” said Dee. “We had to do something for her, something to help people. That’s what she would do.” Collectively, the Grimshaw family sold her property in Thorndale and used the proceeds to establish an equine therapy program at Texas A&M.

“We connected the dots and decided this would be an ideal way to honor her,” said Jim Grimshaw, Courtney’s younger brother. “This is our way of perpetuating her spirit and making something good come out of our terrible loss.”

Because Courtney was such a fervent Aggie, the family reached out to The Texas A&M University System. “From the word ‘go’, all the pieces came together in a way that continues to surprise and delight us, especially since the program supports the values of Texas A&M—research, education and service,” said Jim. “It seems like Courtney was guiding the process. Serendipity is the word that comes to mind when we talk about it. Things just seemed meant to be.”

Courtney Grimshaw ’85 dreamed of establishing a children’s horseback riding camp. Her legacy lives on today in Texas A&M’s Courtney Cares program, an equine therapy initiative for veterans and people with disabilities.

Once horses have accepted the leadership relationship, they will do almost anything to please their leader.


The Program

Launched in 2012 with $1.2 million from the sale of Courtney’s property, Courtney Cares was designed to do more than help local children, adults and veterans in need of services. It was designed as a living, breathing educational laboratory and classroom where students interested in volunteering could learn about the benefits and needs of the EAAT industry.

Courtney Cares is operated through a strategic partnership with the Corps of Cadets’ Parsons Mounted Cavalry and Krenek’s therapy center, ROCK, which provides professional instructors, licensed therapists and more than 20 years of experience. When Krenek was approached by the System in 2012 to head up this project, she knew that Texas A&M could ultimately be the catalyst for promoting excellence in this industry because of its high standards of service, education and research. Today, the program helps children, adults and veterans experience the life-changing therapy of horses.

Currently, 15 to 20 of the Cavalry’s 66 horses are part of the program, and each horse is vetted by the standards of the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship. “Our horses work well because they’re trained to trust their riders and ground handlers to keep them safe,” said Bob Byrns ’74, the Cavalry site manager. “Once horses have accepted the leadership relationship, they will do almost anything to please their leader.” Courtney Cares supports the Cavalry’s budget by helping to pay for horse maintenance, renting Freeman Arena and buying equipment such as saddles, helmets and horse trailers. Texas A&M students—often from the health sciences, education and animal science fields—serve as volunteer side walkers and horse handlers during Courtney Cares sessions.

Once horses have accepted the leadership relationship, they will do almost anything to please their leader.


Two types of sessions are offered at no charge for a couple hundred participants. The first is for children and adults with challenges that are either physical or emotional, like Xochitl Flores’s sons. In addition, Courtney Cares provides a program for veterans who are seeking to learn leadership through horsemanship as they adjust to their post-military life, often with physical injury or PTSD from their service.

“The movement of the horse provides a deep-pressure stimulus with each step,” explained Krenek. “The rider can receive 160 to 200 biofeedback impulses per minute in the neuromuscular system, the brain, the nerves and the muscles. These impulses provide a calming effect on the nervous system that helps participants respond in a more proactive way to life. The cause-and-effect relationship with the horse also allows self-discovery and opportunities for leadership that aid in teaching horsemanship, appropriate behavior and social skills.”

Participants have to communicate with the horse. They have ownership and control of something 1,200 pounds. That’s powerful.


Equine assisted activities and therapy is a growing field because of many studies that have demonstrated the ways horses help people improve physically and emotionally. “There are multifaceted opportunities for improvement,” said Dr. Jim Heird, executive director of the Equine Initiative at Texas A&M, a joint program between the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences. “We know that the movement of the horse closely duplicates the movement of human walking. People can improve their core muscles and walking by riding a horse.”

As for emotional benefits, Dr. Priscilla Lightsey ’80, a physical therapist with Courtney Cares who is also a hippotherapy clinical specialist, explained one reason horses have such an impact. “Participants have to communicate with the horse,” she said. “They have ownership and control of something 1,200 pounds. That’s powerful.”

“Horses are always looking for a leader,” added Heird. This, he noted, helps children and those with disabilities gain confidence as they guide the animals. For veterans, taking care of a horse can make them feel whole. “Veterans do the same tasks the cadets do for the horses, but at a slower pace,” said Byrns. “They have to modify their behavior to work with horses; they have to be calm and gentle. It really helps them handle their personal relationships with their kids and spouses better.” A research study that included the Courtney Cares program documented a 74 percent decrease in PTSD symptoms and an 86.8 percent improvement in veterans’ overall mental health.

The fact that Courtney Cares would benefit military veterans made the Grimshaw family even more comfortable with the goals of the program. Courtney’s father, the late James A. “Bo” Grimshaw, Ph.D., was a retired Texas A&M Regents Professor for Life and Texas A&M-Commerce Professor Emeritus as well as a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel. “It is powerful to see the list of outcomes for those who have participated in the program, and that means a great deal to our family,” said Bo before he passed away in April. “Courtney continues to have a positive effect on so many people. That is the legacy our family wants to perpetuate.”

Of the 25 adults, children and veterans served per semester at Courtney Cares, more than 90 percent have reported improvement in independence and life skills, said Donelle Beal, program director of Courtney Cares. This is demonstrated by changes in physical well-being and improved balance, motor skills and communication. Every individual has goals that are tracked and measured weekly, based on priorities set with the instructor and the family.

Jennifer Mikeska credits Courtney Cares with helping her six-year-old son Colton build his strength, flexibility and balance. Colton had a stroke in utero, which left him a quadriplegic with spastic cerebral palsy. “He has to learn the rhythm of the horse,” said Mikeska. “His balance is 10 times better than when we started. Now he’s actually holding his body straight.” The bonus blessing for Mikeska is that they participate at no cost. “With other therapies (which she said can cost up to $100 per session), we have to fight with the insurance companies or pay out-of-pocket.”

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Trails Ahead

As effective as the hands-on work with clients has been, Courtney Cares is entering a new phase that takes it beyond the arena. After years of being administered by the university system, the program is now under Texas A&M’s One Health initiative in the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, which focuses on the interconnectedness of human, animal and environmental wellness.

During the spring 2018 semester, Drs. Krenek and Lightsey began teaching a class in the veterinary college called “Introduction to Equine Assisted Activities and Therapies” that covers the principles of EAAT. The class was filled to capacity with students attending lectures once per week and working with Courtney Cares for their EAAT laboratory. Dr. Heird foresees additional classes in special education, marketing, horsemanship and business at Texas A&M to aid students in learning best practices of the EAAT industry.

Dr. Krenek also imagines Texas A&M as a leader in equine therapy research. Courtney Cares has been an integral part of a research program with Texas A&M’s Department of Mechanical Engineering to gather biofeedback through sensors placed on the horses and riders to study the impact of the horse’s movement on the mounted client. Earlier this year, the Horses and Humans Research Foundation awarded $10,000 to the university to complete a study that will involve children diagnosed with cerebral palsy.

“If we really believe in helping children and veterans, we need to do research and promote the industry,” Krenek said. But that takes money, and Courtney Cares is running out of funds. Because Krenek and her staff have been efficient with the $1.2 million the program started with, they have stretched a five-year plan to six years. But additional funding is necessary to move the program forward.

Gifts of all levels are vital to the success of this program. Endowed gifts range from $25,000 to $10 million. The total fundraising goal for this program is $12 million, with at least $10 million of that endowed to help cover operating expenses, which are about $220,000 per year. Naming opportunities exist at all levels, and the Grimshaw family has committed $250,000 in matching funds to boost contributions from new donors.

In a strange twist of fate, two people who understand just how effective equine therapy can be also happen to be the individuals responsible for the original financing of Courtney Cares. Patricia and Rukin Jelks, ranchers from Arizona, bought Courtney Grimshaw’s property in Thorndale. They loved the rolling land, the house she had built and the expansive horse barn that was partially constructed. They too now have dreams of using the barn for some type of horse therapy because Rukin, who suffered a life-changing stroke in 2009, has benefited enormously from equine therapy himself.

When they bought Courtney’s property, Rukin could barely talk or move on his own. Their new home happens to be close to ROCK’s main facility in Georgetown. When Patricia called to enroll Rukin in therapy there, Nancy Krenek had already been working at Texas A&M with Courtney Cares. “When Patricia started telling their story, I was overwhelmed at the magnitude of all the pieces coming together,” reported Krenek. “I felt it was more than a coincidence.”

After one year of riding weekly, Rukin can talk and walks on his own with a cane. “Ten or 15 minutes into his ride, you can see the transformation in him,” said Patrick Breen ’79, a retired veterinarian who walks along with Rukin at his sessions. “He gathers himself. His tone changes. You recognize Rukin—the rancher—riding his horse.”

Patricia credits horse therapy with giving her husband his life back. “Getting on a horse was the change we’d been waiting for,” she said. She too sees miraculous forces at work in the way their lives and goals have dovetailed with Courtney Grimshaw’s. “We saw a lot of horse properties when we were looking to buy, but Courtney’s place really called to Rukin,” she added. “Now I know there’s a reason we ended up here.”

Rukin Jelks suffered a life-changing stroke in 2009, but has benefited tremendously from equine therapy.

Wyatt Branum with his parents, Wendy and Jay ’92, and Straw Flying Down. Wyatt has participated in Courtney Cares for four years, and the sessions have greatly improved his walking, running and core body strength.

Saddle-Up Wyatt

The Courtney Cares program makes all the difference for 9-year-old Wyatt Branum, who was born with Down Syndrome. In four years of riding, he’s made tremendous progress mentally and physically.

While never reluctant to ride, he can now mount and dismount his horse Straw Flying Down, who happens to be a gift from Lyle Lovett ’79 to the Cavalry, with little assistance. He trots on the horse, centers himself when off-balance in the saddle and listens with 100 percent attention to his instructors.

“I’m convinced this therapy helps with his walking, running and core body strength,” said Jay Branum ’92, Wyatt’s father. “Plus, his own sense of accomplishment is fun to watch. When he’s finished riding, it’s easy to see that he’s proud of himself. As his parent, that’s the best.”

The Branum family feels confident that equine therapy has proved the most beneficial for Wyatt. “It’s amazing to see the connection he has with the horses,” added Jay. “I’m convinced they must understand their responsibility and importance to this program.”

Grateful for their son’s success, Jay and his wife Wendy—along with Wyatt’s grandparents, Rozi and William Doreen ’64—created the first endowed gift for Courtney Cares. They hope it’s only the first of many to help keep this important program alive.

“Our family owes so much to the Courtney Cares staff and to the Grimshaw family for giving our son this opportunity,” said Jay. “Equine therapy has proved so important to our son’s quality of life that we wanted to do what we could to make it possible for him and others for years to come.”