Chuck Gierhart calls his wife of 43 years, Roberta “Bird” Gierhart, a living miracle. And it is hard to argue, considering her perseverance through multiple threatening illnesses and leap-of-faith cutting-edge operations. So it was especially touching Tuesday when she took command of a brown mare and competed in the Chisholm Challenge at the Fort Worth Stock Show.
“I always wanted to be a part of Will Rogers [Memorial Center], but I never thought it would be in this capacity,” said Bird Gierhart, a skilled rider since childhood who is now without the use of her legs. A stroke about a year ago has also slowed her speech.
The Chisholm Challenge, in its 14th year, is a three-day event for equestrians with disabilities and serves as the precursor to the Stock Show. Many of the nearly 200 brave competitors in the event, which winds down Wednesday, are school-age kids.
But not all. Bird Gierhart, 65, was supposed to start yet another round of rehabilitation Tuesday, this time to retrain her facial muscles after a surgery that transferred nerves and muscle veins from her thigh.
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“It’s a beautiful thing to see these riders do what they do. I know how hard it is because I work really hard with my riding with the challenges that I have,” said Michael Richardson of Hico, a Chisholm Challenge judge since its inception. Thirty years ago, just as he turned 20, the Jeep he was riding in flipped and he suffered irreparable damage to his spinal cord, forcing him into a wheelchair for the rest of his life.
“When I get on a horse, their legs become my legs. We become one,” he continued. “It’s not just sitting on a horse. They’re part of me and I’m part of them.”
The challenge is organized by a consortium of 13 therapeutic horseback riding organizations in North Texas, including New Hope Equine Asssisted Therapy Center in Argyle, where Bird Gierhart discovered a renewed ambition and determination after one medical nightmare after another starting in 2014.
Gierhart, who has been living with Parkinson’s disease for 30 years, was nearing the point of needing assisted living in 2000, four years after the couple moved to Argyle from their longtime home outside Chicago because of Chuck Gierhart’s job with BNSF Railway. Then her doctor suggested a landmark surgery in which doctors would install two brain stimulators to counterattack the Parkinson’s symptoms.
“After that it was like a miracle,” Chuck Gierhart said. “She wasn’t merely OK — she drove a pickup truck and hauled a horse around. She did that for a good decade.”
Then rather suddenly in 2014, Bird Gierhart could no longer take the couple’s daily 2-mile walk. In fact, she couldn’t walk at all after a series of debilitating and life-threatening situations: hydrocephalus, or water on the brain; and the cause of it, a ballooning brain tumor that her neurosurgeon initially believed she would not survive.
A team of surgeons from around the nation gathered in Dallas and removed the giant tumor, but days later she suffered a stroke. Then came countless rounds of rehabilitation that had the couple living outside their home.
An advertisement for the New Hope center at an Argyle pizza joint caught their attention. Chuck Gierhart called. Now Bird Gierhart rides a white Arabian mare named Missy twice a week for an hour.
Missy’s skittishness prevented Bird Gierhart from bringing her to the Chisholm Challenge, but it didn’t stop the rider from making impressive showings Tuesday in the John Justin Arena. Riding that brown mare with the help of two handlers by her side, Gierhart took fifth place in English equitation and first in trail riding, an event that whisks her back to days of galloping through the Illinois countryside.
“Independence,” she said, choosing the one word to describe what riding means to her. “Because my legs don’t work and I can go wherever I want when I’m on a horse. Once I realized I could ride again I was determined to do more.
“I’ll ride as long as they keep me in a saddle.”
Jeff Caplan: 817-390-7705, @Jeff_Caplan