Stacey Johnson has been riding horses for 24 years.

"I love riding horses," Stacey said.

To understand why it's such a big deal, you'd have to know how Stacey's story began. She was born with intellectual disabilities. She's deaf in her right ear and partially in her left.

"She didn't talk until she was five," Martha Johnson, Stacey's mom, said. "If you would've told me when she was younger that she would get to do all the wonderful things she's gotten to do, I would've never believed you."

Stacey, 38, also has a progressive bone disease called vanvuchem disease which causes thickening in her bones and skull.

Stacey Johnson
Stacey Johnson

"She has sight issues, balance issues due to all the pressure," Martha said. "She never could do things that other kids could do: she couldn't do running, she couldn't do track, she couldn't do cheerleading."

But Stacey found something she could do.

"She surprises us every day," Martha said. "Riding is her whole life. She trains four days a week."

Martha said that decades ago, she learned about Equest by accident in the newspaper. That accident turned into something no one expected.

"I do showmanship and trail," Stacey explained. "I do a lot of stuff."

It turns out Stacey was a natural.

"She did very well," Martha recalled. "She progressed up to walk, trot... and sometimes she'd come up the winner and we're like, oh my!"

A setback from a surgery meant Stacey had to start all over again.

"They told her she probably would never walk," Martha said.

But Stacey was up for the challenge thanks to physical therapy and dedicated training. She showed everyone what she was made of.

"She amazed her doctors," Martha said.

In 2003, Stacey was chosen to go to the Special Olympic Equestrian Games in Dublin, Ireland.

"She did great," Martha said proudly. "She brought home a gold and a bronze medal. If it wasn't for Equest, she could've never accomplished all of these wonderful things."

Equest CEO Lili Kellogg said that positive feedback from family members and overall improvement in clients is what helps her sleep well at night.

"Knowing that that horse can help them accomplish things that have often been deemed unachievable- that gives me the most joy," Kellogg said.

According to Dr. John Burruss, when you experience emotional mental improvements like horses offer to Stacey, they are often accompanied by physical gains.

"No surgery is going to make the kind of difference we're talking about, but there are benefits to be had and progress to be made helping people adapt to their limitations because of this type of therapy," Burruss, CEO of Metrocare, said.

"We need to study [therapeutic equine therapy]. We as a society need to decide that these are important things," he said.

Stacey will eventually need surgery again because of her thickening skull, but she know that riding will always help her to bounce back from any obstacle.

"It helps me get stronger," Stacey said.

"We're blessed," Martha added. "We feel very blessed."

In June, Stacey will head to Seattle to compete in the Special Olympics national games in track.