EDITOR’S NOTE: Students from the University of North Texas Mayborn School of Journalism wrote about people and places around Denton County as part of their spring coursework. This story and upcoming stories feature their work, which also will be showcased in Discovering Denton County — a special publication due out Sunday.
The veteran rider races his horse through a rain-deprived section of his Corinth ranch, galloping briskly toward the finish line. Turning the final corner, he cranes his neck to glance over at his young competitors trailing desperately behind.
What sets the horseman apart from the other riders is what lines his left breast pocket — a small heart-monitoring device.
“I’ve ridden all my life, I was saddling up while most kids were breaking in their training wheels,” said the rider, Charles I. Fletcher, clutching the reins and urging the horse to settle down.
Retired at age 63, Fletcher proves that age is simply a state of mind. With more than 50 years of experience in training and showing all breeds of horses, his reluctance to put down the reins despite his developing heart condition comes as no surprise.
“So why should I stop now,” Fletcher said. “A few minor beats will not detour me from my passion.”
That passion led him to develop and construct a center that helps disabled children battling physical and mental issues come to a place of security and stability to learn the art of horseback riding.
SpiritHorse Therapeutic Center sprouted from the always-racing mind of Fletcher who wanted all children to have the privilege of interacting with the majestic animals he himself grew up on.
“Every childhood memory up until now has included horses in some extent, whether it was me riding one or showcasing one in one of the many livestock shows I competed in. They were always visually present,” Fletcher said, as he tied a frayed rope securely around a wooden post to leave his horse, Cowboy, to lap up the water others had left.
SpiritHorse opens it doors Monday through Friday providing free services to people with disabilities, children who are victims of abuse, battered women, children who are terminally ill and at-risk-youth.
The organization also serves U.S. veterans who were wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan in its “SpiritHorse for Heroes” program.
The organization currently serves more than 400 children and adults at its Corinth facilities each week and has 110 children on its waiting list.
About 300 of the children have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder — a disorder that is a complex developmental disability that causes problems with social interaction and communication.
Symptoms usually start before age 3 and can cause delays or problems in many different skills that develop from infancy into adulthood.
“The children that I help can’t truly fathom and understand human emotion and social interaction,” Fletcher said. “That’s where the horses play their role. They provide the child with a humane reaction and compassion that they can process without the complications or expectations required with normal social interactions.”
Through his ranch, Fletcher has found a way to allow children a unique opportunity to understand and create bonds with the horses that can lead to the creation and development of emotional bonds between others that were not present before.
“My daughter was diagnosed with autism at age 3. Now, at age 7, the disorder has changed her into an introverted and somewhat combative person,” said Julie Simmons, mother of SpiritHorse client Savannah. “She doesn’t like to be touched or show any external emotion. Her life has to be completely in her control, so horseback riding, in my mind, was initially out of the picture, not even an option.”
Julie Simmons was advised to seek Fletcher’s alternative brand of help after traditional therapy methods failed to help her daughter. Savannah has been a client at SpiritHorse for the last three years working closely under Fletcher’s guidance.
“When we first received Savannah, I could see that we had a lot of work cut out for ourselves. I had seen countless children like her born with a disorder that limits and shortens their life and the experiences that come with living life,” he said.
Once in his care, Savannah fought Fletcher and his staff for authority. She refused to listen and adhere to anything the trainers told her and her own mother’s warnings were taken with little regard, making her recovery a challenge for Fletcher.
“My daughter fought and fought, refused to get near the horse, let alone on one. It was a challenge to say the least,” Julie Simmons said. “Yet, lucky for us, Charles embraces challenges. He worked with her personally and built up this relationship between her, the horse and himself that in turn broke down this emotional wall that she had built up and gave me a glimpse of my child I haven’t seen for years.”
It is a glimpse that has kept the Simmonses coming back year after year and has provided Fletcher with reassurance that his center works in aiding and enriching children’s outlook and attitude toward others.
“That child was going to be the death of me. I had met wild stallions tamer than her. But with all that said, I had never seen and probably will not ever see anyone like ‘Vannah’ again — a child so genuinely compassionate and trusting with these horses when she in a sense has been programmed to be the complete opposite,” Fletcher said, positioning a framed portrait of two small boys on a horse.
The portrait not only showcases himself at age 7 along with his autistic cousin but shows Fletcher’s true inspiration and drive behind the center he has fought so hard to create.
Fletcher witnessed firsthand at an early age how stressful and unfortunate autism can be on a child.
When his cousin was diagnosed, he watched as his cousin’s life and opportunities were stripped away, he said.
“We were born and raised on horses, yet Daniel wasn’t allowed to touch or interact with them. Why was I given the chance and he wasn’t, I constantly asked, only to have my parents tell me that the horses were too dangerous for someone in his condition to be around,” Fletcher said. “The horses were too dangerous, when I was more likely to bite or kick him before they were, and yet they still allowed him to saddle up with me.
“I built this center so that every child would have the opportunity to experience something that was considered out of reach because of the position they were placed in.To show them that limitations are just someone’s misguided expectations, that regardless of your health — mental or physical — you can do anything you set you heart on.”