Kara and Jerry Johnson’s home is filled with items for their children. Action figures and playsets sit alongside a wheelchair for Logan, their 4-year-old middle child with cerebral palsy.
Over the last few months, a new creature has started popping up among Logan’s toys: horses. The Johnsons bought a rocking horse and a motorized plush horse, both of which Logan can ride with some assistance, and smaller versions of the animal also fill the space.
“We didn’t think he would be capable of sitting on a horse, let alone riding one or really enjoying it,” Johnson said.
Logan’s cerebral palsy is a side effect of his premature birth. Johnson’s water first broke when she was 20 weeks pregnant. When she and her husband visited a clinic in Salt Lake City for an ultrasound, they told her that Logan’s head would be severely misshapen and that he wouldn’t survive being born or a full-term pregnancy in utero. The Johnsons were advised to abort the pregnancy but decided to keep him.
Kara spent most of the next two months hospitalized at Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center before Logan was born at 28 weeks. His head didn’t end up being misshapen, but his birth weight was barely more than one pound. He spent the next 74 days in a hospital incubator. He was diagnosed with cerebral palsy soon after being first taken home by his parents.
Cerebral palsy is the most common motor disability among children. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that between two and four in every 1,000 children are either born with the issue or develop it at a young age. Premature birth and low birth weight both increase the odds of a child developing the disorder, which causes muscles to stiffen or relax abnormally and often leads to difficulty walking or involuntary movements.
“Logan was always very stiff. You could grab one foot and hold him out in front of you like a baseball bat,” Kara said.
His motor functions have been diagnosed as Level IV, the second-most limited outcome of cerebral palsy. Most of the time he moves around in a wheelchair and a support walker. At home, he can sometimes crawl around rooms or walk around using a walker but he cannot sit upright without support. The muscular issues have limited his writing ability but the premature birth and cerebral palsy had little impact on Logan’s verbal or mental skills.
Neither of the Johnsons’ other children — their 6-year-old son Terry and 18-month-old daughter Alexis — had any similar health issues. Alexis is already larger and stronger than her brother despite being half his age.
A surgery Logan underwent in St. Louis last year severed a majority of the nerves in his spine but freed his muscles up to begin developing more normally. After that surgery is when he started crawling and sitting more easily. He’s also suffered fewer digestive issues and even made his first steps toward walking without any support.
“It’s not a cure-all but it did a lot for Logan. Before we had no hope of him ever walking on his own,” Kara said.
The surgery was covered by Medicaid, as are the three therapists that work with Logan’s physical and speech skills. Kara doesn’t know if Logan will ever be able to live on his own and expects her son will always need help from therapists.
Recently, the family has added a free fourth version of therapy into the mix: equine therapy.
The nonprofit equine ministry Champ’s Heart was founded in late 2018 by Larry Cudmore, the former pastor at First Evangelical Lutheran Church. After his 30-year-old horse Champ died in May, while Cudmore was in remission from cancer, he founded the nonprofit on the south side of Idaho Falls to provide free equine therapy to local families that need help.
Champ’s Heart began offering rides twice a week in September and is working to expand the number of children that can interact with the animals. Cudmore is building a sleigh that would allow people in wheelchairs to ride behind the horse and has a group of volunteers that work to keep the horses tame and the riders safe.
“I am amazed by how these animals affect the children’s spirits. I don’t do anything other than promise to keep them safe,” Cudmore said.
Many of the families that attend Champ’s Heart, like the Johnsons’, have children with either physical or mental disabilities so Cudmore takes steps to make sure his horses are safe to be around. The children wear riding helmets, vests and safety belts as protection when they ride and are always surrounded by multiple volunteers, parents or physical therapists
Johnson said she first heard about Champ’s Heart through another nonprofit group for children with disabilities, Camp Hayden, in December and visited the barn for the first time shortly after. The smell of the horses was initially a problem for Logan, but soon he began riding them and fell in love with the weekend experience. The Johnsons’ try to visit the barn every Saturday, and Logan asks to be around the horses as much as he can.
“A few weeks ago on a Thursday, he wanted to sleep in the car and wear his helmet because he was ready to go to the barn,” Kara said.