May 9th, 2012
11:31 AM ET

From horseback-riding to a wheelchair and back

Editor's note: In the Human Factor, we profile survivors who have overcome the odds. Confronting a life obstacle – injury, illness or other hardship – they tapped their inner strength and found resilience they didn't know they possessed. This week Krystal Greco, 16, shares her story about pursuing her passion despite a life-changing injury.

Ever since the age of four, I've been a horseback rider.  It never occurred to me that a day might come when I wouldn’t be able to ride. But March 7, 2010, was that day.

It was a normal Sunday afternoon. As usual, I had woken up late. I was showering and started feeling some cramping in my lower back, which wasn’t uncommon because I was being treated for a stress fracture in my lumbar spine. I was out of the shower and partially dressed when it happened - the explosion of pain.

I screamed for help and my mother rushed in.  She managed to help me up off the bathroom floor and helped me finish getting dressed. We made it down the stairs, into the kitchen and through the garage door before my legs started giving out.  At this point, my parents had to half carry, half drag me out to our vehicle. 

It was only a matter of minutes, but I had already lost the strength and feeling in my legs; my parents had to completely lift me into the truck.

As we drove the 40 minutes to the hospital, I remember constantly trying to move my legs and repeatedly being frustrated that they wouldn’t cooperate.  At that point, I was still able to move and feel my toes, but nothing else below my waist.  When we arrived at the hospital at around 4 p.m., I was immediately taken for X-rays and an MRI.

My diagnosis was a ruptured disk which bruised my spinal cord.  A doctor explained that this was a very rare condition for a child or teenager and that surgery was needed to decompress my spine.  By 5 a.m. on Monday, March 8, I was being wheeled into surgery.  The surgeon was able to successfully decompress my spine, but it did not cure my paralysis.

I was tested numerous times to establish why my disk ruptured, but the cause was never determined. All they could tell me was that I was paralyzed from the waist down.

It was only 10 days before they transferred me to the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore, home of the International Center for Spinal Cord Injury. I spent nearly nine weeks as an inpatient, where – through intensive rehabilitation – I was taught how to be independent and through physical therapy, rebuild muscle strength and nervous system connections. 

This is also where I learned that it might be possible to ride a horse again, even though I was paralyzed.  That place was called Freedom Hills Therapeutic Riding Program, in Port Deposit, Maryland.  Due to my surgery, I wasn't able to ride at the time, but I made sure to keep it in the back of my mind.

Five months after my injury, I went back to school for the first time.  It was not without its challenges. Getting around the school on my own and talking with people was difficult.  It was almost impossible for me to look people in the eye, and I got many stares on my first day.  I managed, though, and each day it became a little easier.

By October, I had recovered enough to consider riding again. Freedom Hills offers a unique program called hippotherapy. It is a form of physical therapy using the characteristic movements of a horse to help a patient increase trunk strength and control, balance and overall posture strength and endurance.  Two weeks later, I was on my way to Freedom Hills, feeling excited and nervous.  I was nervous that my body wouldn’t be capable of physically doing what I wanted it to do. 

Before, I was an accomplished horseback rider, and I didn’t give a single thought as to how different my life would be without the use of my legs. Now, I had to expect the impossible.

Almost immediately after arriving at the farm, I was thrown into the situation I feared the most - getting on the horse. It was tricky. I had to transfer straight from my chair onto the horse’s back, but once I was on, all of that nervousness went away. I was grinning from ear to ear.

For my first ride, someone led the horse and two people walked on either side of me for support.  I was hooked on horses (again!) and began riding twice a week.  I never imagined how much you could miss by simply not being able to control the lower half of your body, never mind a horse.  I had never noticed how much I took for granted.

I continued to ride for five months before something amazing happened. I was at Kennedy Krieger for an evaluation of my recovery, and I was able to move my legs for the first time. I believe this small portion of recovery was brought about by the unique combination of innovative activity-based restorative therapy and the therapeutic horseback riding.

Now, a year and a half later, at the age of 16, I ride independently and compete year-round.  I am also a volunteer at Freedom Hills.  I love being able to share my passion and show people, that riding as a para-equestrian isn’t much different from riding as an able-bodied person. I also continue my rehabilitation at Kennedy Krieger.

Looking ahead, two of my goals are walking across the stage at my high school graduation from North East High School in North East, Maryland, as well as competing in the U.S. Paralympics for para-dressage. 

I would also like to help and encourage others to live an active life in their wheelchairs.  There are so many activities for people with disabilities including basketball, tennis, skiing, and archery.  

Having a spinal cord injury doesn’t have to mean an end to the hobbies and sports that you love; it just means having a view from a different angle.

soundoff (30 Responses)
  1. Meir Weiss

    Reblogged this on Meir Weiss' Blog.

    May 9, 2012 at 11:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Michelle

    Time and time again, it has been proven that horses soothe the mind, the body and the spirit. Hippotherapy is absolutely WONDERFUL. And, its not just for the rich.....there are many farms out there with non-profit programs. Krystal is an inspiration...may she continue to get stronger, and may there be always be horses in her life!!

    May 9, 2012 at 12:35 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Danielle mcgrady

    Congrats freedom hills is a good place to go if ur a noneablebody and ablebody person.ive also riden and volentered at freedom hills as well. freedom hills showed me that it was oky to be differant i suffer from depression and im also bipolar and def in my left ear.riding at freedom hills change me into a better person and thought me how to live with my disability

    May 9, 2012 at 12:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Nick

    Neat. I think she should read A Song of Ice and Fire by George R R Martin. Or watch Game of Thrones on HBO. She should be able to relate to Bran who has an accident but still rides and becomes 'gifted'.

    May 9, 2012 at 13:36 | Report abuse | Reply
    • milpitasguy

      That was no accident. He was pushed off the window by Jamie Lannister after climbing up the tower to find Jamie and Queen Cersei (his sister) in a "compromising" position.

      May 9, 2012 at 13:47 | Report abuse |
    • TheMovieFan

      Ha! I thought of Bran too when I saw the article.

      May 9, 2012 at 14:08 | Report abuse |
    • Krystal G.

      Thank you for the lovely comment.

      I wanted to let you know that I do watch Game of Thrones, and it is one of my favorite shows and was suggested to me by one of my close friends. I was easily able to relate to Bran when Tyrion presented the gear for him to be able to ride, like you suggested.

      May 9, 2012 at 19:25 | Report abuse |
  5. Valerie

    How wonderful! You're certainly an inspiration to others that might be in the same situation!

    May 9, 2012 at 13:50 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Sally

    There are many centers around the United States and world that offer therapeutic riding and hippotherapy. They are great places to vounteer and see miracles happen.

    May 9, 2012 at 15:32 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Krystal G.

      Sally, I totally agree.

      Equine Facilitated Therapy Centers, along with Therapeutic Riding Programs are always in need of volunteers, and if you are looking for something rewarding to do, helping out at one of these places is a good direction to head in.

      May 9, 2012 at 19:26 | Report abuse |
  7. AReno420

    Where can I find locations in my area that have this type of therapy? I live in the Kansas City area and my 17 yr old nephew was recently diagnosed with transverse myelitis. Also, any idea if this type of therapy is covered by insurance?

    May 9, 2012 at 16:26 | Report abuse | Reply
    • florentinea

      There shouldn't be a charge for this, but they would welcome donations. 🙂

      May 9, 2012 at 17:10 | Report abuse |
    • Katie L.

      There is a "Find a center" feature on PATH International's website. PATH is the largest certification organization in the US for therapeutic riding, though there are other types as well. As far as insurance, to my knowledge, the center that I work with does not deal with insurance. HOWEVER the biggest reason for that is that we are not "hippotherapy." We are "therapeutic" in that there are a number of physical, mental, and emotional benefits to riding horses (the things mention in this article, the empowerment, the ability to do something many of your peers cannot do, for us the ability to do something WITH your family, including able-bodied siblings). Hippotherapy is a specific type of therapy done using the horse as a tool for physical therapy and done by a licensed therapist. You may find ways to cover that by insurance, however, most centers I know of are reasonably priced and have scholarships available because they know that families are often not able to afford more pricey activities. Check out PATH's "Find a center" at http://www.pathintl.org/path-intl-centers/find-center

      May 9, 2012 at 17:33 | Report abuse |
    • Krystal G.

      As Katie L. mentioned, PATH International has a section on their website where you can search for Equine Facilitated Therapy and Therapeutic Riding Programs around the country.

      As for the other portion of your question, no, insurance most definitely does not cover any sort of therapeutic riding or hippo-therapy. However, I wouldn't stop there. These centers are non-profits and are more than willing to work with what you have and are not likely to turn you away because of money constraints. The cost for riding or Equine Facilitated Therapy varies from center to center, but if you are to pay for it yourself, it would be paid for as a "donation", and would be tax deductible.

      May 9, 2012 at 19:40 | Report abuse |
  8. Sarah J.

    Very inspiring – lovely person.

    May 9, 2012 at 17:37 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Nancy J Reynolds

    Congrats on your progress in your recovery. It is very inspirational. In no way do I dismiss your courage and strength,or the successful benefits of hippotherapy, but you couldn't be in better hands for your physical therapy than at Kennedy-Krieger, and under the care of Dr. John McDonald and his staff. Keep up the good work.

    May 10, 2012 at 14:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Lisa

    Congratulations, Krystal. You are an inspiration to many people. Keep up the courage and the hard work and you will go places most of us only dream about.

    May 10, 2012 at 14:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. cpc65

    Great story of triumph over tragedy! I'm wondering about the initial stress fracture in her lumbar spine which she was being treated for. Could that occur from riding horses, say if you go at a fast gallop over rough terrain or do jumps? I've only ridden a couple of times, and they were horses meant for tourists, so please pardon my ignorance.

    May 10, 2012 at 17:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Heidi

    I hope you continue to see improvements through therapy. I admire your courage; you are most certainly an inspiration. Have you hear of of the robotic walking suit named the "ReWalk machine"? A woman paralyzed from the chest down just completed the London marathon wearing one. It took her 16 days, but she did finish.
    Happy Trails:-D

    May 10, 2012 at 20:40 | Report abuse | Reply
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  14. Carol

    Hi Krystal,

    you have already come a really long way it seems! I believe that the body has the ability to regain much more function than what patients are often told. The therapists at Applied Biomechanics have seen this over and over again. Good luck with your continued recovery. I am sure you will reach your goals. Please check us out and contact a nearby therapist if you reach a plateau with your current regimen. http://www.Appliedbiomechanicsassociates.com

    July 11, 2012 at 23:26 | Report abuse | Reply
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    January 31, 2013 at 05:16 | Report abuse | Reply
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  17. Samantha


    What an inspiration! I had a a major back surgery in June of last year. Im no where near to 100% and may never be but I am determined to ride again. I was hunting the internet for something that would let me know Im not crazy for getting back on. Thank you for that!!!

    I wish Freedom Hills was closer to me. I have a great friend who son rides there and that place is amazing! Im so proud of your dedication and hard work. Keep it up!

    May 17, 2013 at 09:30 | Report abuse | Reply
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