Skills Needed For Horsemanship Are Therapy For 3-Year-Old Boy

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Justice McNeeley is taking riding lessons, and while that may not sound all that extraordinary, take a closer look and you will find a special instructor, a generous saddle maker, a patient horse with a gracious owner and very courageous parents.

Justice is a typical 3-year-old-boy -- almost 4 he corrects.

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When 3-year-old Justice McNeeley is astride his trusty mount, Grey, he is not a child with a disability. Instead, he is a happy, little cowboy, ready to ride the range.

Talkative doesn't begin to describe the litany of words in this youngster's vocabulary.

He wants to tell you all about it and he wants to tell you now.

But unlike most precocious three-almost four-year-olds Justice has Spinal Muscular Atrophy, a genetic disease that attacks the muscles, in Justice's case muscles closest to the trunk, said his father Trent McNeeley. Most of the time, Justice rides in a wheelchair -- and may for the rest of his life.

It is a progressive disease with no current cure, his mom, Katie McNeeley said as she watched Justice ride Grey, his pal.

Grey is a mellow steed with patience matched only by that of riding instructor, Laci Balmer. Grey's temperament makes him a perfect match for the little cowboy. His owner Dorothy Anderson graciously allows him to be used for the lessons.

Riding on a sunny, but windy morning in Pine, Justice was all smiles aboard Grey.

"He is really young," Laci said of her star student. "But he has a good attention span, he is really able to go the whole hour."

Taking lessons just once a week for the past four months, Justice already has a feel for the horse and instructor. With little to no help he backs the horse up, and turns to the left or right.

"Let's go in a circle now," Laci tells him.

"No. I'm going this way," he says with a mischievous grin, directing the horse the way he wants to go.

He stops altogether and wants Mom to ride a few laps with him.

"It was my idea," she said of his lessons. "I grew up around horses. I have ridden my whole life -- it was one thing I thought he could do," Katie said.

And he can. When told to squeeze his legs to cue his mount, he scrunches up his little face and works muscles in his legs that otherwise might succumb to the disease.

Sitting astride a saddle with a few custom alterations, generously donated by local saddle maker Jim Weeks, Justice has a seat belt and no stirrups. Wearing shiny black cowboy boots, Justice can move his feet enough to signal the serene horse into motion.

Most novices find that riding uses leg muscles they did not know they had, Laci said. These lessons are like physical therapy for Justice.

Besides his lessons, Justice does a lot of physical therapy. His parents have him in a manual wheelchair -- so he has to get himself around, and at home he crawls.

"A lot of folks with kids (with this disease) just give up," Trent said, allowing the children to become sedentary. Something he and Katie refuse to do. They want him working and using every muscle that he can, leading a normal life.

So far they have been able to slow and even stop the disease's progression in the hope that something will come along to reverse the disease. "(Experts) believe that they could cure this if they had the funds available," Katie said. If they are just around the corner from a cure, then Justice will be ready for it.

"I'm taking you to the gate and dropping you off," Justice tells his Mom after a couple of laps around the arena.

Laci has the boy direct Grey around the arena again and works on stopping.

"Tell him to stop now," she says as she stands in front of the horse, "pull back on the reins." She talks gently and encouragingly to the pint-size rider.

Justice grins and giggles as his little legs squeeze.

"You think this is funny," Laci says with a grin, as she moves out of the way of Grey and his little friend.

The fact that Justice knows what he is doing and the horse is responding eliminates any need for correction.

Like most 3- almost 4-year-olds, Justice McNeeley has a mind of his own.

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