The tall, bay gelding didn’t plan the event that changed his life in early 2010. He was quite content in his little part of Oregon’s BLM (Bureau of Land Management) Paisley Herd Management Area; grazing through the day, avoiding predators at night. Life was hard, but it was all he knew. He was three years old when the Bureau of Land Management field staff herded him into a chute where they vaccinated, de-wormed and gelded him.
Ritt Chitwood, of Tennessee, didn’t plan the path his life took either. On the day of that fateful car crash in 2006, he lost both his best friend and his ability to walk. He was 17 years old. His father had died when Ritt was six years old. His mother, Margie, a single mom, was a trooper. She singlehandedly provided the care Ritt needed, regularly driving the four-hour round trip for hippotherapy sessions. (Derived from the Greek word hippos, for horse, "hippotherapy" literally refers to treatment/therapy aided by a horse and has proven to be excellent therapy for neuromuscular disorders.) Margie and Ritt had decided to find a horse of their own. Margie hoped to build a corral with ramps enabling her wheelchair-bound son to ride at home. One small caveat, Margie was terrified of horses. A woman of deep Christian faith, she was about to watch one of her regular TV programs on channel 122 when channel 2 flicked on instead. In that brief moment an ad for the Extreme Mustang Makeover in Murfreesboro, TN, appeared; she instantly knew they’d find Ritt’s horse there.
Meanwhile, Dr. Cindy Brasfield didn’t have time to plan; she was too busy balancing all the different areas of her busy life. She was a full-time veterinarian who lived on a farm in South Alabama where she raised organic lambs, bred and trained border collies, and, in her spare time, trained horses. She’d become ever more intrigued by the emerging ‘natural horsemanship’ concepts of training horses by instilling deep trust and confidence, rather than the older "cowboy" methods of subduing the animal and bending him to one’s will.
She had always enjoyed working with mustangs, but was excited about the Mustang Heritage Foundation’s new competition called the Extreme Mustang Makeover (EMM). Their slogan is "100 Horses, 100 Trainers, 100 Days" and the competition involves 100 experienced volunteers who foster and train a wild mustang for 100 days, then compete in one of eight locations across the nation throughout the year. After each competition, the now-transformed horses are auctioned with the proceeds benefitting the efforts of the Mustang Heritage Foundation to protect and find homes for the ever-expanding wild horse population in the United States. Cindy submitted an application and was selected to participate in the upcoming Extreme Mustang Makeover to be held in Murfreesboro, TN, in October 2010.
In July 2010, when Cindy arrived at Piney Woods, MS, one of two BLM holding areas for the EMM mustangs, she was randomly assigned the tall, dark bay gelding from Oregon. She named him Top Notch and drove him home to her farm in Robertsdale near Mobile.
From that moment, both of their lives were changed. Cindy did little else but work her job and work with this horse; first gently earning his trust, then taking care of his teeth and health, putting weight on him, grooming and training him.
She kept a photo journal of her progress and shared it on Facebook. Over the next three months, Facebook friends watched as Top Notch metamorphosed from a rangy, thin, nervous mustang to a glistening, healthy, trusting equine partner, willing to do anything Cindy asked of him.
If the story ended there, it would be meaningful. But it didn’t. Cindy taught Top Notch to do tasks not usually asked of the horses in Mustang Makeovers. She thought these tasks would be fun to show and impress the crowd in her freestyle performance for the competition. She taught Top Notch to pull a cart or anything else she tied to him or the saddle, like full-size tarps, tractor tires, fence panels, etc. She taught him to step sideways over to her so she could step into the saddle from the top of the arena panels, from the tail gate of the pickup truck, from a picnic table or anywhere Cindy could climb up and perch. She taught him to lower his head to accept the bridle and halter even when Cindy was kneeling or sitting on the ground, to lie down and get up with her on his back, and to enter his stall or a horse trailer with only a wave of her hand in that direction. And, beyond all these amazing behaviors, she taught him to be totally unfazed by any noise or motion including standing in the saddle and firing eight rounds of blanks into the sky from her .22 pistol.
We watched her progress on Facebook and cheered her on. She made it clear she’d fallen in love with Top Notch and wanted to bring in the winning bid for him. Top Notch performed well enough in the competition to place fourth overall. After the event, Cindy won the bid for Top Notch in the auction.
All was as she had intended, that is, until she went to pay for him. At the payment desk the cashier pointed out a lady standing next to a young man in a wheelchair. Theirs had been the competing bid. Cindy was moved to tears. When she finally walked over to talk to them, she learned Ritt and Margie’s story, that $600 was the highest they could pay and that Top Notch had been their choice because they needed a horse that was well-trained, steady and calm enough to be used for hippotherapy. The fact Top Notch was trained to pull a cart was a great bonus!!
Cindy realized then she had been training Top Notch specifically for Ritt Chitwood from the first day she had him, but just didn’t know until that very moment. She relinquished her bid for her beloved horse and something better than anyone could have imagined took place. When Ritt first met Top Notch, because of all the unusual things Cindy had taught him, he was able to halter the horse from his wheelchair and lead Top Notch out of the stall, down the barn isles, return the horse to his stall and remove the halter with no assistance! God’s plan had brought four lives together. This was literally a match made in heaven!!
Cindy coached Margie with the horse until she was able to overcome her fear and now she can sit fearlessly in the field with him. Margie hopes to get ramps built at their barn soon so Ritt’s chair can be wheeled up to the level of Top Notch’s back where, with assistance, Ritt can slide into the saddle for riding. While it will be difficult for Ritt to ride faster than a walk in the saddle and it will require one person on each side of the saddle to stabilize him, in a cart this will not be the case. With a properly modified conveyance, disabled individuals are equal with their non-disabled counterparts once they are in the cart. If they choose to compete, they are welcomed into traditional equine driving events.
Cindy is corroborating with specialists to build a cart into which Ritt can simply roll his wheelchair and lock the wheels into place. He will be able to drive Top Notch from the security and comfort of his own wheelchair!
Although Cindy misses her remarkable pupil, she’s content knowing she was part of an unexpected miracle.
Top Notch now has his own Facebook page where donations toward the cart, harness, feed, care and hippotherapy are being accepted: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Top-Notch/135818966470750#!/ pages/Top- Notch/135818966470750?v=wall.
A bank account has been established on behalf of Ritt Chittwood. Please make checks payable to "Top Notch Fund" and mail to 21860 CR 48, Robertsdale, AL 36567. You may also make donations by contacting Judy Green, Manager, United Bank, Silverhill, AL, at (251) 945-1902 or 800-423-7026.
Susan Petro lives in Destin, FL.