LONGMONT, Colo. — Bubba is moving around the stall at his own unique pace.
A camera is ready to snap a portrait of the 29-year-old pinto and his brilliant brown-and-white-patterned coat, but Bubba is taking his time. His head bobs in the cool early spring air in northern Colorado, the picturesque Longs Peak looming in the distance behind him.
He won’t be rushed.
“Bubba is a teacher of patience,” says Amanda Good, a volunteer at the Colorado Therapeutic Riding Center who has worked with the horse for several years. “He takes a lot of calm, deep breaths, so you’ve got to be patient with him, and then …”
Bubba leans his head over the fence of his stall, posing just above a plaque adorned with the name and stickered image of another athlete who tends to play on his own terms: Nikola Jokić.
The Denver Nuggets superstar and Bubba have never met. Not yet, anyway. But the reigning two-time NBA MVP’s unbridled passion for horses has led to an organic partnership between Nuggets fans and a Colorado nonprofit that has served area families for more than four decades. What started as a quest by a small group of ardent basketball fans to demonstrate their appreciation for the team’s social media-less star has blossomed into nearly $25,000 in donations over the past 18 months. Those gifts help support dozens of families who benefit from the powerful healing equine-assisted therapy can provide.
“It is wonderful to see the community come together and support people and support missions that change lives,” said Michele Bruhn, the executive director at CTRC. “To know we might be able to reach Nuggets fans and their family members who need services who may have never known about this, you just think about that partnership and that connection, and it’s incredible.”
It all started as something of a joke for Mollie Hunt.
A diehard Nuggets fan since 2003, Hunt had become amused by the updated advanced-metrics charts that would pop up on Twitter each week, the ones that showed Jokić standing alone in the upper right quadrant by virtue of his all-encompassing impact on the game.
“It started to be so comical that he was just literally far and away above everybody,” said Hunt, an IT healthcare consultant who lives in Salt Lake City but grew up just outside of Denver. “I had this thought one day where I was like, ‘As someone who has followed this team for so many years, I just feel so grateful. How do we let Jokić know how much we don’t take for granted the fact that he’s changed what it means to be a Denver Nuggets fan?’”
In December 2021, Hunt took to social media to brainstorm ideas with other fans. Should they buy billboard space and slap a message on it that Jokić would see while driving to the arena? Should they make a video montage and figure out a way to get it shown in the arena?
Then, the conversation shifted to horses.
Jokić’s love for the animals began when he was a 12-year-old growing up in Sombor, Serbia. His father brought him to a race, and the fascination set in immediately. At the same time, Jokić had a teammate on a youth basketball team whose father was a trainer for racehorses. Jokić was invited to the stable where they trained. He was awestruck.
“I just fell in love with the horses,” Jokić told The Athletic in 2020.
Jokić bought his first racehorse, Dream Catcher, shortly after he was drafted by the Nuggets in 2016. He now owns more than half a dozen horses and spends much of his offseasons in Serbia tending to the animals at his own stable. In his downtime during the season, Jokić can be found watching horse races on his phone or even jetting off to race tracks during East Coast road swings.
For Jokić, the passion is more about a communion with the competitors than the competition itself.
“I just enjoy being around them and seeing their different characteristics,” he said. “You get to see when they work out that they are basically like us. They are athletes, sprinters. They are magnificent creatures.”
That authentic appreciation, in the eyes of Hunt and the Nuggets fans she rallied, made honoring Jokić through a therapy horse sponsorship an easy sell. Hunt did her research and discovered that the group could sponsor a horse at the riding center for $2,500, money used to meet hoof care, feed and veterinary needs for a full year.
Hunt was sent a list of horses by CRTC that were available for sponsorship. When she put up a poll on Twitter, her fellow fans landed on Bubba, the horse that was “unique physically and looked a little bit different than the others.”
It wasn’t until Hunt visited CRTC early last year that she discovered the impact their grassroots effort could have.
“It just became so much bigger and made it so much more meaningful,” she said.
The pristine grounds at the riding center sit below a snow-capped mountain range and an endless stretch of blue sky 30 miles outside Denver. Inside the spotless tack room, saddles, harnesses and other gear customized to fit a wide range of clients’ needs are neatly organized on the walls. An indoor dirt arena next door features a ramp and a mechanical lift, designed to help riders who use wheelchairs mount the horses. There is audio equipment that helps blind riders navigate turns while they ride.
If the small army of staff members and volunteers doesn’t have a mechanism in place to help a client experience the benefits of therapeutic riding, they’ll engineer one.
“We tend to look at it not as what a person’s disability is but what their abilities are,” Bruhn said, displaying a set of color-coordinated reins that help one of her clients understand where to grab when navigating a horse.
The 30 horses at CRTC, who come to the center after past careers such as racing — or, in Bubba’s case, dressage — work with clients facing various challenges. There are veteran amputees. Clients with muscular dystrophy. Some are recovering from traumatic brain injuries. Others have speech issues. The center serves clients ranging in age from 3 to 103, its director said.
“Really, if someone is affected by a health consideration, therapeutic riding has different ways of benefiting folks with their mental, physical and social well-being,” Bruhn said.
Equine-assisted therapy began gaining traction in the United States in the early 1960s, largely viewed at the time as a recreational outlet for people with various physical challenges. But its benefits began to impact people with larger sets of needs as therapists and trainers gained a better understanding of a horse’s wide range of abilities.
“They are such tremendously social animals among themselves that their communication is very subtle,” said Miranda Vargas, a staff trainer at CRTC. “They are not very verbal, but that doesn’t mean that horses out here aren’t assessing. They’re watching us for those queues for any changes and shifts in ourselves, and especially for our riders, to make sure everything is good and safe. That part, you can’t teach it. It’s something that is inherent within them.”
Physical benefits can come for a client simply by sitting on a horse. The animal moves “in a three-dimensional gait,” Bruhn said, and as clients merely balance themselves on top of the horse as it begins to move, they are mimicking the same muscle movement used by a person when they walk. Soon, muscle tone, core strength and even organ function can begin to improve based on that movement.
Benefits extend beyond the physical, too. The most rewarding part of her organization’s work, Bruhn said, is watching confidence grow as clients return during their 10- to 14-week sessions.
“You have little kids in wheelchairs who are now the tallest ones in the room,” she said. “Their self-esteem is through the roof. You’ve got families that are affected. It’s a ripple effect.”
Martin Furness, a 63-year-old software developer, is a blind rider who first began taking lessons at the center in 2009. He uses specialized metronome-style devices, placed in the four corners of the indoor arena, to help him navigate. His weekly rides have become a central part of his life.
“It helps you to relax, open up, your walls go down,” Furness said. “Normally, in the world, you might have your walls up against any type of negative energy that is pushed in your direction. It’s not very often that you can just let those walls come down. It recharges your batteries and keeps you going for the next week.”
Bruhn tells a story of a family who brought their son to CRTC when he was 17 years old. At 13, the boy had suffered a traumatic injury that left him unable to talk or walk. His family tried virtually every therapy they could in an attempt to help him regain some of his past mobility and cognitive function. Someone at Children’s Hospital Colorado, where their son had been treated, told the family to give equine-assisted therapy a shot.
“They reached out to us, and we started serving the young man in a speech therapy session,” Bruhn said. “Within six months, he walked across his graduation stage. … It was pretty incredible when you start thinking about taking this young man from an injury that had affected him in so many different ways, and now he’s in our therapeutic riding classes. He has transitioned and gained enough skills to where he’s holding the reins on his own. He’s talking; he’s somewhat ambulatory and is able to support his life in those different ways.”
When Jokić won his second MVP last April, Hunt organized a campaign to raise money for a second therapy horse at CRTC. The donation goal was met in a few days, and a 20-year-old horse named Handsome soon had his own plaque with Jokić’s name on it at the front of his stall.
But the group’s latest — and, by far, most substantial — fundraising session was born by its own need for some soothing therapy.
Many Nuggets fans have become exhausted by the discourse around this year’s MVP conversation, which Hunt describes as “toxic” and Denver coach Michael Malone has even called “dark.” When one Nuggets fan realized earlier this month that Jokić, too, had begun to hear some of the conversation around the debate and was exasperated by its constant presence, he reached out to Hunt and suggested another online action.
“He reached out to me and was like, ‘We need to cheer Jokić up,’” Hunt said.
She had her doubts about whether the star center would get wind of the campaign, and she was reticent about once again asking fans for donations. But after thinking it over for a day, Hunt put together a GoFundMe. The goal was met in less than 48 hours, quicker than the previous campaigns. Additionally, an anonymous donor reached out to Hunt and then connected with CRTC to make a $15,000 donation.
For a nonprofit that gets two-thirds of its operating budget from donations and is still emerging from some of the adverse impacts of the pandemic, the monetary gift was significant. Hunt, who credits the strong, tight-knit community of Nuggets fans who have embraced her online for the campaigns’ success, hopes the partnership is just getting started. She has even raised the idea of sponsoring horses in honor of Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo as a way of injecting warmth to counteract some of the more vitriolic MVP discourse.
“It has just taught me that Denver Nuggets fans are a unique breed,” Hunt said. “We’re just in this era where being fans of this team is unlike anything we’ve ever seen. So there’s this desire to be connected to the team and connected to each other and connected to the community. It’s really leaning into this period of time that nobody wants to take for granted.”
The folks at CRTC aren’t taking this newfound connection for granted, either. Bruhn, who is from the Chicago area and doesn’t profess to be a massive basketball fan, said she and her colleagues have learned more about Jokić and his love for horses during this process, and the superstar’s connection to the animal has made their indirect passion all the more meaningful.
When Jokić claimed his second MVP award last April, he did so at his stable in Serbia, pulling up in a riding cart behind one of his horses as he was greeted by a traveling party that included Malone, former general manager Tim Connelly and president Josh Kroenke. Videos of the moment went viral.
Now THIS is how you accept an award 😂
Nikola Jokić was at his horse stable in Serbia to claim his MVP trophy.
🎥 @NBAonTNT pic.twitter.com/89GNakL1oz
— The Athletic (@TheAthletic) May 11, 2022
“It is so obvious,” Bruhn said, “his love and understanding of horses and their unique and sensitive nature and how they connect with humans and just everything they can provide.”
The riding center will host its big annual fundraising gala in June. Bruhn said it would be a dream to have Jokić attend. The dream for Nuggets fans would be that Jokić is busy in June, still alive in the hunt for the franchise’s first NBA championship.
But at the very least, Bubba will be in attendance, moving at his own pace, just like the MVP.
(Illustration: Sam Richardson / The Athletic; photo: Ron Chenoy / USA Today; image: iStock)