For rare medical condition, help comes on horseback for Aurora man, others

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AURORA | Nate Redman spends every Wednesday riding a shiny, brown quarter horse named Slick. With Slick, the 22-year-old works on his core strength by leaning off the side, doing sit-ups and riding facing backwards. At one point he performs a Superman pose, laying on his stomach on Slick’s blue saddle while his legs and arm stretch like he’s flying through the sky. And he does all of this without being able to see much of anything.

Nate wears sunglasses now because he can’t see at all if the lights are too bright. At some point, he will lose his vision entirely.  He has spinocerebellar ataxia, Type 7, a rare neurodegenerative disease that has no cure.

He’s not riding the former show horse for a competition. The only thing he can do to slow the progress of the disease is exercise. He rides Slick each week through the SaddleUp! Foundation in Elizabeth, southeast of Aurora. It’s a program where patients receive the benefits of physical and occupational therapy while riding on horseback.

The cerebellum in Nate’s brain and the retina of his eyes are slowing atrophying due to a foreign protein building up in his cells from this rare gene. He is normally in a wheelchair as he can’t balance himself to walk or control his leg movements. His speech is slow and deliberate. He said his thoughts are complete, but getting them out of his mouth is sometimes difficult.

“I always thought you’d be a musician,”  his mom, Nanette Redman said, over a cup of coffee at the family’s donut shop in Aurora before the session.

The disease came as a surprise to the family. “It’s a genetic condition, yet nobody in our family has ever had it,” she said.

In high school, Nate said he played all kinds of instruments in marching band before the disease took hold. “I played all the saxophones: alto, tenor, soprano. I played piano and guitar,” he said. He said he still loves listening to rock music, and that his favorite venue to see bands is The Summit Music Hall downtown.

Nate’s condition was diagnosed in 2009 when he started having trouble at wrestling practice in high school. He said the condition started affecting him the most in his senior year, when his eyesight got so poor he had to stop driving. When the family moved to Colorado three years ago, Nate started seeing a doctor at Craig Hospital in Englewood who specializes in treating ataxia. He also participates in physical therapy designed for brain injuries offered by the hospital.

Chelsea Franzell, an occupational therapy student, helps Nate work on his fine motor skills by making him pick quarters out of a mason jar using tweezers while he’s riding Slick. As she commands him to drop the quarters into the individuals slots of a plastic egg carton, she giggles and tells him about a Foster The People concert she’s looking forward to at Red Rocks. Franzell is around his age.

“One thing that is important to Nate when we provide the sessions is there are therapists, aides and volunteers that are part of it,” said Debbie Mogor, a physical therapy assistant who directs therapeutic services at the ranch. In the sessions, Nate tends to loosen up, too, laughing and smiling more often, but always determined to complete the task he is given.

Mogor said that for Nate, riding the horse is a way to replicate what walking feels like, something that is now painful and laborious for him.

“Why we like to use the horse, too, is the horse walks the same as a man,” she said. “That’s why it’s so good, especially for neurological patients, it’s giving the brain a normal feeling of what it’s supposed to feel like so it can
duplicate.”

Mogor said this similarity is one reason SaddleUp! works with neurological patients versus patients who are recovering from a hip or knee surgery.

The horse is more than just physical rehab, said Adam Daurio, executive director at the foundation. “Nate could get the same benefit by being hooked up to a machine … but instead you’re riding a living, breathing animal,” he said.

Nate said he has a special bond with animals, especially now that communicating with words is tough. “I have a support dog named Booster, it’s funny because I think he is jealous of my time with Slick. He always jumps on my lap as soon as I get back to my chair after riding. Slick is a great horse and we have a bond, too, he seems glad to see me anyway,” he said.