Charles Irvin Fletcher, 76, a former microwave systems engineer, will receive this year’s other six-figure prize. After retiring, Mr. Fletcher, a lifelong horse lover, spent five years and 5,000 hours volunteering at a therapeutic riding center in the Dallas area dedicated to equine therapy for children with disabilities.
“While the children enjoyed the ride, I didn’t see any healing, and I thought more could be done and more should be done,” Mr. Fletcher said.
So he researched ways to provide science-based equine therapy. He met with medical specialists to learn about brain development and created a network of experts.
Then in 2001, he founded SpiritHorse International, a nonprofit based in Corinth, Tex., 30 miles north of Dallas. His ranch is now home to 31 horses and ponies, and is the headquarters for a worldwide network of 91 licensed therapeutic riding centers that serve children with disabilities in the United States, South America, Africa and Europe.
At Mr. Fletcher’s ranch in Corinth, roughly 400 children with disabilities, some as young as nine months, receive free weekly riding sessions on ponies with names like Buttercup and Peter Pan. The riders have a variety of medical conditions, including autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis and spina bifida.
More than 5,000 children have been helped through the network since the gates first opened.
“I believe that horses can feel spiritual messages,” Mr. Fletcher said. “They can feel love. They can feel gratitude. They can feel approval, and they transmit those very simple feelings to the children.”
He added, “The reason this therapy works so well is that children with disabilities also have a very open spirit, and the horses sense it.”