How a Top Notch mustang changed the life of man paralyzed in car accident
In a March 10, 2011 photo, Ritt Chitwood spends some time with his new horse, Top Notch. The horse is a gift from veterinarian Dr. Cindy Brasfield. (AP Photo/Press-Register, Victor Calhoun)
A mustang captured in the Pacific Northwest and a young Tennessee man paralyzed in a car accident came together through the efforts of a south Alabama veterinarian, the determination of the student's mother and — both women said — divine intervention.
In a metal cart designed to carry his wheelchair, Ritt Chitwood guided his new horse, Top Notch, around the track at the Robertsdale farm of Dr. Cindy Brasfield earlier this month. In about two weeks, Brasfield will drive Top Notch to his new home with the Chitwood family in Murfreesboro, Tenn., she said.
"His whole life is in that chair and now he is able to get in that cart and actually do something that a non-disabled person would be doing," she said. "He's no different than me or you when he sits in that cart and it's just real exciting to see the look on his face and the feeling of accomplishment that he has when he takes those reins and drives that horse around."
Ritt Chitwood, then a student at Middle Tennessee State University, was paralyzed from the chest down and left in a coma for four months after a 2006 car accident. Hippotherapy, or horse therapy, was recommended to help with both his physical and mental rehabilitation, said his mother, Margie Chitwood. The therapy works well, but after months of driving two hours each way for sessions, they decided to try to find a horse for Ritt, she said.
Top Notch was captured in Oregon in 2010 and placed in the Mustang Heritage Foundation's Extreme Mustang Makeover adoption program. The program matches 100 horses with 100 volunteer trainers for 100 days in a competition to make the animals adoptable.
Brasfield, a large-animal veterinarian, decided to take part in the program. In Mississippi, she looked over the pens of horses and wondered which had been assigned to her as a first-time trainer.
Most of the horses were small and calm. She noticed only one horse, larger than most of the others, in a pen with about five other mustangs.
"He was rearing up, baring his teeth, striking, fighting every horse in there, chasing them round and round the pen," Brasfield said. "He was just nuts and I thought 'Oh my gosh. I'll be OK as long as I don't get that horse.'"
She got that horse.
In a March 10, 2011 photo, Ritt Chitwood and his mother Margie Chitwood enjoy a ride in a metal cart designed to carry his wheelchair, pulled by his new horse Top Notch, a gift from veterinarian Dr. Cindy Brasfield.
(AP Photo/Press-Register, Victor Calhoun)
"I got the biggest, tallest, meanest horse out of that bunch and I drove away with him thinking this horse is going to kill me," Brasfield said. "As it worked out, he calmed down quickly and he changed so dramatically and so quickly to being a very calm, trustworthy and a very good horse."
Brasfield taught Top Notch not only to carry a rider and respond to commands, but also decided to teach him other lessons.
Most horses lift their heads when a bridle is being attached, requiring a rider to have to reach over his or her own head. Top Notch learned to lower his head so that Brasfield could attach his reins and bit while she sat on the ground. He also learned to walk up to a fence or platform so that a rider could step directly onto his back rather than having to climb up into the saddle.
He learned to stay calm when dragging things behind him.
After 100 days, the time came for the competition and to put Top Notch up for adoption. The auction was scheduled for Murfreesboro, Tenn., in October 2010.
On the morning of the auction, Margie Chitwood awoke in her home in Murfreesboro and turned on the television. The television was always set to the Catholic Eternal Word Television Network. Chitwood said the inspirational programming helped her to start her day.
That morning, however, the set was on another channel where the announcer was talking about a horse adoption to be held that day.
"I don't know how that happened," Chitwood said. "The cat must have stepped on the remote, but we'd been looking for a horse and we decided to go."
The Chitwoods saw Top Notch and bid on him. Brasfield, however, also wanted Top Notch and had put in a higher successful bid.
After the auction, the two women were introduced. Brasfield said they both realized that Top Notch had been intended for Ritt.
"(Margie) showed me the program where she had been looking at a lot of different horses and they'd written notes on all the horses and trainers and beside my horse, she'd written 'hallelujah!'" said Brasfield, hesitating while describing the moment. "I'm going to cry again talking about it. I asked why she didn't buy Top Notch and she said they had a budget and it went too high. I said, 'How much could you afford,' and she said $600 and I said, 'OK you bought yourself a horse.'"
Margie Chitwood said Top Notch made an immediate connection with her son.
"I think certain animals are tuned into people, especially sick people and I think that Top Notch is," she said. "I think that he knows that he's special and they have a special connection. You can just look at them talking together and communicating you can just see it. This was all just by the grace of God. Nobody planned any of this and when I think of everything that Cindy has done. Heaven to Betsy."
Chitwood has raised Ritt and his brother since the boys' father died when Ritt was 6. While Brasfield said she was able to come up with the $3,000 to build the cart and help Ritt get ready, other help will be needed. He will have to have a trainer, which will probably cost about $75 an hour.
Brasfield said a special fund has been set up at United Bank in Silverhill. Donations can also be mailed to the "Top Notch Fund" at 21860 County Road 48, Robertsdale, AL 36567. Top Notch also has his own page on Facebook, Brasfield said.
She said that no matter what the obstacles the Chitwoods now have someone else who will help them overcome them.
"I anticipate everything going very, very well for them," Brasfield said. "I trust this horse to take care of them. I know he will."