We are taking the month of February 2017 to recognize three University of Findlay students who are dealing with a physical condition or disability. As one student said, “This is something I have. It does not define me. Never has. Never will.” As we present an article each week, you’ll come to learn what these students have in common. . . confidence, optimism, empathy and big plans for the future!
At a very young age, Natalie Spalding used to watch her father tinker with things that didn’t work. “He’s a sheet metal worker and has always been handy. He can fix anything,” the UF senior remembered. Spalding credits both of her parents with something even more inspiring than her father’s talent for machinery. They’re responsible for her toughness and positive attitude in dealing with cerebral palsy.
“My parents always said that, even if I couldn’t keep up with the other kids physically, I had a good mind and could hold my own when it came to learning,” she recalled.
If there can be an upside to Spalding’s condition, it’s that her cerebral palsy is not as severe as it could be. The condition affects her legs … her right side more than her left. Other than having difficulty walking, she has no other symptoms and is not in pain. Spalding referred to a cousin who also has CP and is in a wheelchair and non-verbal. “It could have been a lot worse for me,” she added.
An umbrella term for a group of disorders affecting a person’s ability to move, cerebral palsy is due to damage to the developing brain. This damage can occur during pregnancy or shortly after birth. It is the most common physical disability in childhood.
Horses Enter the Picture
From North Lima, Ohio (near Youngstown), Spalding is the oldest of four girls. The family would travel to North Jackson, Ohio, so she could participate in a program at FOCUS Hippotherapy. (Hippotherapy, or equine assisted therapy, is physical therapy that involves riding and working with horses). In addition to her muscles benefitting from the movement that riding entails, she became “hooked” on horses and started on the road to an equestrian career.
Spalding’s family is not rich and she knew she would have to work hard, despite her physical issues, to earn enough to attend college. During high school, she worked at various fast food restaurants in North Lima. She enrolled at Kent State University-Salem, but continued to dream of being involved with horses in some way.
“I had heard about the equestrian program at the University of Findlay and always thought there was no way I could afford it,” Spalding said. “At the end of my sophomore year, I applied to UF and received a merit scholarship. That made all the difference.”
Originally enrolled in the equestrian studies program, she switched to equine business management, which has allowed her to focus on the business aspect of the horse and livestock industry. It also sparked a latent interest in “tinkering.” After graduation in fall 2017, she plans to enroll at Youngstown State University in the engineering program.
“I want to build better, more efficient farm machinery,” she added. “It really goes back to watching my dad work when I was growing up.”
Spalding’s cerebral palsy is not progressive, so she knows what she’s dealing with. She insists she is pain free, except for a little joint discomfort when the weather turns cold. “Oh yes,” she laughed. “I spiral-fractured my ankle ice skating and that flares up from time to time.”
The Office of Disability Services has provided Spalding with a stress-free environment in which to take tests and exams if she wishes. She feels the office has been very helpful and is very open about her physical challenges.
“The downside of cerebral palsy is how people look at you,” she said, “but I’m used to it. On the plus side is that my condition can really be a conversation starter. People remember me. Someone will come up and say, ‘Hey, you’re in my class. Do you have the notes from yesterday?’ It’s almost like it makes it easier to approach me.”
True to her character, Spalding continues to work hard in her classes and at two part-time jobs. She is totally independent and too busy to return home often during the school year. That grit is what has stayed her through life’s tougher times. It’s probably also the reason that a young woman who didn’t grow up on a farm and has never owned a horse is well on her way to making her mark on the agricultural industry.