Comeback Kid: Ellington Rides to Recovery
Cooper Ellington has overcome hurdles and challenges the average preteen can hardly imagine.
The brutal battle that 12-year-old Cooper has been forced to fight began in August of last year.
Von Hippel-Lindau syndrome (VHL), a rare genetic disorder, runs in the Ellington family. Cooper’s mother, Stephanie, was recently treated for a brain problem related to the condition.
But all of the tumors previously found in the family had been noncancerous.
A mere two days before the start of last school year, a malignant tumor was found in Cooper’s brain. He was rushed to Duke Hospital for immediate surgery.
“Cooper was a straight-A student, never made a B in his life. And he played three sports,” said his father, Reid Ellington. “The surgery wiped him out. He’s basically had to start over.”
Although he has a way to go, Cooper has made progress relearning to walk and talk in the past year.
And, thanks to Cindy and Jim Hudson, of Southern Pines, he can now count horseback riding among his newfound skills.
For the past couple of months, Cooper has been riding two to three days a week as part of his therapy, with Cindy Hudson as his instructor.
Although Hudson has been in the equestrian business her entire life, she’d never tried her hand at the therapeutic side of the spectrum.
She and the Ellington family both attend Pleasant Hill Baptist Church in Southern Pines, and once she talked to Pleasant Hill’s pastor, Gregg Newton, and heard Cooper’s story, she knew right away she wanted to assist with his recovery.
After talking with rehab therapist Sue Stovall, occupational therapist Christy Pusser and speech therapist Monica Glazier, who all work with Cooper, Hudson got the all-clear to jump-start her efforts.
“With my horse experience, I felt like I could help in this way, and it’s been very successful so far,” she said.
Prancing Horse Therapeutic Riding Center in Vass has played a significant role helping local handicapped youth for almost three decades, but most of their sessions involve groups of four riders or more.
What’s unique about Cooper’s lessons is that they are private sessions. “I’d rather do a one-on-one like this,” Hudson said.
Once Hudson decided to begin the riding program, Kelly Bauer — a friend of Hudson’s — helped her get started with donations for the program.
Local horse owners Mary Kate Davis and Michelle Lahr graciously donated two ponies for Hudson to use as Cooper’s mounts. The pair are kept at Linda Boone’s farm on Youngs Road, where Cooper also does his riding.
“Those ponies are like their children,” Hudson said. “But this is what the owners wanted them to do. They wanted them to give back.”
At first, Cooper rode for less than five minutes at a time. “He was always complaining,” said Stephanie Ellington.
But after only 15 or so rides, he’s progressed to a half hour of mounted exercise, and he’s clearly having the time of his life. “Now he doesn’t want to get off,” Stephanie Ellington said.
“He actually wants to take both ponies home with him,” Hudson added.
During Cooper’s time astride, Hudson has him do arm exercises, holding them above his head and out to the side, while Reid or Stephanie leads the pony. Even riding at a walk has done wonders for his core and inner thigh muscles, and for improving his balance, according to his therapists.
“They’re therapeutic too, the animals themselves,” Reid said. “These ponies have the perfect demeanor.”
Hudson has nothing but high praise for the compassion and kindness of the Ellington family and their unfailing devotion to their son.
“When Cooper was going through surgery at Duke, through rehab in Greenville, they never left his side,” she said. “And the trust they have put in me, considering they didn’t even know me, is amazing.”
Cooper no longer needs a hand at his side to steady him. In the next few weeks Hudson hopes to incorporate simple obstacle courses into the ride that will help Cooper work on steering and controlling the pony by himself.
It’s evident that everyone involved believes the equine therapy to be a Godsend for Cooper.
“We don’t call it therapy, though,” Stephanie said.
“For kids like Cooper, therapy is hard work,” Hudson agreed. “I don’t want this to be work. I want the riding to be associated with grooming, with bathing, with having fun.”
After a lifetime of riding and competitive showing, Hudson is happy to settle into this new equine routine. Expanding the therapeutic riding program is a prominent item on her agenda.
“This is more rewarding (than just riding). It’s something different,” Hudson said. “I want to be able to help other kids like Cooper. I would’ve never believed he’d come as far as he has.
“Cooper’s been a big inspiration to me, to the church, and to a lot of people.”
Reid Ellington said he’s been astounded by the effort this community has made to support Cooper in his recovery, and he points to a higher power for making his son’s journey possible.
“Through faith, God and this therapy, things have been put in our path to get him better,” Reid said.
That Thursday afternoon, after more than 20 minutes aboard and several circuits around the ring, Stephanie asked Cooper to bring Faith to a stop. He pulled back and voiced a clear “whoa!” and the pony obeyed.
“What do you think, Coop?” Stephanie asked. “Do you want to keep riding?”
Cooper’s eyes lit up, and his face split into a wide grin.
No doubt, a resounding yes.
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