- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 19, 2009

When Joseph Grist was 6 years old, his doctors recommended equine therapy for his cerebral palsy. His torso and arms were very weak, his leg muscles contracted. Riding a horse, experts said, could strengthen his core and leg muscles. But when Joseph’s parents looked for equine therapy centers, they found only astronomical costs and long drives.

So they thought of another solution.

“We looked at each other and said, ‘Why not do it ourselves?’ ” Joseph’s mother, Dawn Grist, said.

Thus the Grists began a journey that uprooted them from their six-figure jobs and their Gainesville, Va., home and planted them on a 35-acre farm. Three years, nine horses and more than 50 students later, they are convinced they are doing something good in the world.

Anthony and Dawn Grist run Misty Valley Therapeutic Riding Center, which provides riding lessons to disabled, handicapped and at-risk children. There are dozens of therapeutic riding centers across Virginia, and hundreds across the nation, but one thing about the Grists’ stands out: It’s free.

Mrs. Grist said therapeutic riding lessons usually cost about $45 per hour. Some centers charge up to $150 per hour.

At Misty Valley, riders only have to pay for their safety equipment: boots, helmet, kneepads.

Mrs. Grist said this usually surprises parents; some react negatively.

“They’re usually looking for the hidden agenda,” she said. “I’ve actually had people ask, ‘Well, why don’t you charge anything?’ I say, ‘Well, because it’s a service that’s needed, and some people can’t afford it.’ I guess it’s just hard to believe that there are good people in the world who are trying to do the right thing.”


The Grists started by trying to do the right thing for their family. In 2005, they lived in an 8,000-square-foot house with nine bedrooms, six bathrooms and a nanny for their six children. Mrs. Grist was working 12-hour days, Mr. Grist 16-hour days. Together they made $550,000 a year. But something was wrong.

“Our family life was nonexistent. Our nanny was raising our kids,” Mrs. Grist said.

They also needed therapeutic riding lessons for Joseph.

So Mrs. Grist quit her job, and the family moved to their investment property in Culpeper. Mrs. Grist, who had taught horseback riding in the past, became a certified therapeutic riding instructor and completed a yearlong internship to learn how to work with various disabilities.

They started Misty Valley in 2006. This year, they have 41 students, whose disabilities range from Down syndrome to autism to muscular dystrophy.

“It’s so rewarding, just to see the kids smile, when you see a kid change over time,” Mrs Grist said. “I get a lot of satisfaction helping and giving back to the community. I’ve been given so much in my life and can now give back to people.”

The couple also have accomplished their original goal: helping Joseph. Mrs. Grist said riding has strengthened his muscles and also his confidence.

“It’s amazing the difference it’s made in his balance and coordination and just his self-esteem,” she said. “He’s never going to run track or play football. … He’s just not physically capable of those things. But when he’s riding horses, he’s on the level playing field with everyone else.”


Dee Brown’s 5-year-old daughter, Cheyanne, takes lessons at the Grists’ farm. A therapist at her school recommended riding at Misty Valley to help Cheyanne’s autism and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.

“We couldn’t keep her focused very long on one thing, which causes educational problems in school,” Ms. Brown said.

Since Cheyanne started riding in March, her attention span has increased from eight minutes to 40 minutes, Ms. Brown added.

Therapeutic riding works because it treats the whole person, said Sandy Artichoke, program and projects manager for the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association (NARHA).

“The horse has a three-dimensional motion that is closely related to a human walk,” she said. “So when a disabled person is riding, they get the kind of motion they wouldn’t get on an exercise machine.”

Riding can build muscle strength and tone and also help riders emotionally.

“They’ll bond with an animal much more quickly than they will a human. They might open up and let some things go,” Ms. Artichoke said.

Ms. Brown said riding is teaching Cheyanne, who struggles with change, how to adapt. The young rider has a favorite horse, Trigger, and having to ride different horses helps her understand “you don’t always get what you want,” her mom said.

In the past, doctors recommended after-school activities such as dance or gymnastics for Cheyanne.

“And all of these things are expensive, not just the course itself, but the fuel to get there,” Ms. Brown said. “I couldn’t afford it. There was just no way.”

She said she could not afford riding lessons if not for Misty Valley.


Mrs. Grist said she doesn’t know if her riding center can stay open next year. Despite some fundraisers and donors, about 90 percent of the center’s funding still comes from the Grists’ own pockets, and Mr. Grist had to take a lower-paying job. At minimum, it costs $1,200 per month to keep Misty Valley open. Unexpected costs, such as a recent $700 veterinarian bill for a horse’s sliced foot, make it even more expensive.

Mrs. Grist said they don’t want fundraising to cover their mortgage or personal expenses, but just basic costs for the center, such as horse feed.

They also would like to buy an adaptive saddle - a $6,000 device that would enable amputees and those with certain muscle disorders to ride. A recent yard sale supported by riders’ parents raised $200 for the saddle. If they can raise the additional funds, Misty Valley could start helping more local students and also veterans from Fort Myer.

The Grists are applying for various grants, including one from the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, but so far, the future remains unclear. If they don’t find outside funding, Mrs. Grist said, Misty Valley may have to start charging riders a nominal fee or close its doors.

“That’s really what I’m trying to avoid,” Mrs. Grist said. “I don’t want to give up helping these kids. I really don’t.”

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