Her name emblazoned across her white riding helmet, 8-year-old Maggie Turney was all grins recently as she was gently lifted on top of a small, brown horse.
She grasped the reins tightly as the horse began its slow stride around the sandy arena. Maggie slumped a little over the saddle - the result of her cerebral palsy and the reason she's riding.
"Head up, Maggie," her mother, Amanda Turney, called out as Maggie passed by.
Maggie is one of more than 100 children and adults with disabilities who ride at Wings of Eagles Ranch, a nonprofit therapeutic horseback riding center off Miami Church Road in eastern Cabarrus County.
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The ranch serves riders with a myriad of disabilities, including autism, Down syndrome, spina bifida, muscular dystrophy and countless more, said Christine Cronin, who opened the ranch with her husband, Bob.
Wings of Eagles Ranch is a North American Riding for the Handicapped Association center. The association has more than 800 member centers that serve about 42,000 children and adults.
The Cronins opened their ranch to riders in 1999. They were inspired by personal experience.
"Brendan was the reason for all this," said Christine Cronin.
Christine Cronin's son, Brendan Cronin, began horseback riding when he was 7 years old after his physical therapist suggested riding as therapy for his cerebral palsy, the result of a stroke he suffered while he was still in the womb.
Cerebral palsy is a neurological disorder that often develops in infancy or even before birth. It is caused by abnormalities in the brain that affect muscle control, making some people with cerebral palsy lack muscle coordination or have stiff muscles.
When he first began riding, Brendan, who is paralyzed on his left side, had no balance, causing him to slide off the horse. Over time, the movements of the horse improved his balance. Now, the 21-year-old can ride bareback.
"It's just been a cool process, how God has used the horses to strengthen me," he said.
Without horseback riding and parents who pushed him, Brendan said, he wouldn't be where he is today. He hunts, fishes, rides four-wheelers and studies - "but not too much," he said - for his classes at Stanly Community College.
"Now I can do almost everything a typical kid can do," he said.
And he does it all one-handed.
The ranch is a family effort, and Brendan does his part. He and his older brother, Christopher, recently completed a tower that is about 40-feet tall where summer campers will repel down one of the tower's walls and ride a 546-foot zip line.
The family stays busy at the ranch. About 50 riders take lessons there each week, and the ranch hosts school groups, holds summer camps and coordinates programs with the Alexander Youth Network, a Charlotte-based organization for children with emotional and behavioral problems.
Brendan said he's been able to watch kids in situations similar to his own grow and improve their strength through horseback riding. And seeing Brendan able to do all he does inspires the riders and their parents.
"It gives them something to strive for," he said.
When Maggie, of Concord, began horseback riding when she was only 2 years old, someone had to sit behind her to hold her up.
"Maggie has gained the strength in her core to ride all by herself," Christine Cronin said as Maggie looked up at her with a wide grin.
Maggie's goal is to ride every horse on the ranch, with maybe a few extra rides on her favorite horses, Honey, Duke and Cappi.
During a lesson recently, Christine Cronin watched as a group of three children, including Maggie, circled the ranch arena with two volunteers walking on either side of the riders and another volunteer leading each horse.
Christine stopped them and led them in stretching exercises while the riders remained atop their horses.
"Now grab their tails," Christine Cronin said, striding over to help Maggie shift her shoulders to reach behind her.
Maggie's breathing and ability to talk has improved because her diaphragm, the muscle that helps people breathe, has been strengthened by horseback riding, which teaches her to sit up in the saddle.
"It helps my muscles because I'm always tight," Maggie said of the riding and exercises.
Like Brendan, Maggie was born with cerebral palsy. Four years ago, she had an extensive surgery in which doctors cut 75 percent of the nerves in her body to reduce her muscle tightness.
Maggie's mother, Amanda Turney, explained that many children with cerebral palsy, who frequently ride in wheelchairs, are at risk of developing a hip problems similar to hip dysplasia in which the hip moves out of its socket.
Amanda Turney said the movement of the horse during horseback riding forces Maggie's legs apart and pushes her hips back into the socket.
"The horses' walking gait is the closet to a human gait," she said.
Recently, a doctor told Turney that her daughter's x-rays were better than the ones taken three years before. It's the horses, she said.
"There's nothing I've seen work better."