Jim Brady and Therapeutic Riding

Despite the gunshot wound and traumatic head injury he received while serving as President Reagan’s press secretary, James “Bear” Brady was actively involved with therapeutic riding. He discovered that the movement of the horse helped him walk better and increased his endurance, allowing him to participate in various activities and honor many of the public speaking requests – including those from TRAV – he received from the therapeutic riding community. He came to understand the role that occupational and physical therapists, as well as speech and language pathologists, played in his recovery. He learned how critical those services were in helping him improve his writing, walking, and speaking. He called all therapists “terrorists” because of the gruelling demands made upon him during his rehabilitation!

Jim was excited when his son, Scott, became interested in riding. As an occupational therapist and certified riding instruction, I was fortunate to teach Scott, who developed a love and special relationship with my thoroughbred cross, Raven. Scott and Raven had a special relationship; a relationship of depth. I asked Mark Wonderly, a judge and trainer, if he could guide me in this journey of preparing Scott to compete. Jim and Sarah Brady supported Scott in their son’s wishes to ride, as long as Scott promised to complete his schoolwork on a daily basis.

The Bradys lived in a busy city near Washington, D.C., and Scott was surrounded by adult conversations and drivers who took him to events. But Scott would stay at our house in the country on the evenings before a competition. After he had completed his homework, he would play his guitar from the hayloft door or sit in the woods, beneath the stars to prepare his soul for the next day’s competition. He renamed Raven, “Jet Lag,” in order to compete her. After seeing his dedication and love for horses, Jim and Sarah attended the show competitions, often cancelling their political commitments in order to do so.

As Scott increased his lesson time and exposure to horses, his school grades improved along with his riding skills. Then Jim began participating in Scott’s lessons. Jim got up early Saturday mornings to accompany Scott to his lessons – an hour’s drive away. It was a special time for father-son bonding, according to Sarah, since Scott was often left behind when his parents attended political events. Together, Jim and Scott traveled each week to my farm for their lessons. Scott and “Jet Lag” achieved division championship of the Warrenton Horse show series.

Jim accepted invitations to speak at both TRAV’s annual meeting and workshop in the early 1990s, as well as the national NARHA (now PATH] annual conference. He shared how his family had been helped through therapeutic riding. He noted how his relationship with his family—especially his son— had strengthened. His voice cracked, and he faltered, saying how Bob Douglas, the director at the Rock Creek Park therapeutic riding program, had told him there was a “healing power in the horses,” but Jim didn’t believe it until the experience with his own son. We are forever grateful here to have had him walk in our presence.

Named for him, the James Brady Professional Achievement Award is presented annually to a professional who has made a contribution to the field of equine-assisted activities and therapies.

Cheryl H. Coughlin, OTD, OTR/L