Fatigue is the worst symptom of my Multiple Sclerosis.  Not only does it affect my riding, my fatigue makes it extremely hard to take care of horses.  If it was not for the fatigue the rest of my symptoms would not matter as much, but everytime I ride or handle horses I tire quickly, and as I tire all the rest of my symptoms rapidly get worse.  ANYTHING I do before I ride tires me, getting up, eating, riding in the car to the stable, and then walking around the stable getting ready to ride--all are very, very tiring.  Grooming is totally exhausting if I do it thoroughly.  I had stopped riding my own horses back when I owned some because by the time I had caught the horse, groomed it, rasped the hooves and tacked up I was too tired to actually get up on the horse, and the few times I managed to drag myself up into the saddle my riding was truly awful.  Moreover, whenever I did too much when I was very tired I often brought on an MS attack which made everything worse and crippled me further.    


When I started riding other people's horses I came up with a list of things that I need other people to do so I have enough energy to ride.  I need someone else to go out and catch the horse, I need someone else to groom the horse, and I need someone else to tack up the horse.  I need a horse who already had its feet trimmed, and I need a horse that gets to move around enough so it is not too energetic when I mount.  I need to ride as early in the morning as is possible while it is cooler and before the sun gets up high in the sky.  Since I already know how to ride I do not need to be led around, fortunately every horse I've mounted has mostly obeyed me.  I do like having an authority figure in the ring with me, someone to take over if I completely give out.  I also need someone to take care of the horse after my ride.  Fortunately I have found some ladies willing to help me this much, and they do not charge me more for the extra work.  I also need someone who is willing to give me a private half-hour lesson.  I can ride with other horses in the ring, but it takes a lot of extra energy to keep track of the other horses and I am not as free to rest when I need to.  I can generally last 30 minutes in the saddle in an outdoor arena before I am too tired to ride well, in an indoor arena I can sometimes last longer because the sun is not beating down on me.  Unfortunately the cost of lessons at a barn with an indoor arena tend to be double the cost of lessons at barns without an indoor arena so I ride in the sun.


I ride mostly at the walk.  I can trot, on bad days I only get a quarter of the way around the ring, on a really good day I can trot one and a half ways around the ring.  I usually post since this helps make my legs stronger, but as I get tireder I sit the trot more.  Cantering is a real challenge.  Even when I ride in two-point my body has to move a lot more in the canter.  Usually by the tenth stride or so I am too tired to follow the horse's motion properly while keeping contact.  Sitting the canter requires even more movement which makes me even more tired.  I haven't jumped in decades.  For the past two years I have been working on my position and on getting my legs strong enough to jump, but I am still not good enough to jump.  I suppose I am strong enough now so I could now jump a low jump and stay on, but it would not be pretty and I would probably hurt the horse either with my hands or by plopping hard down into the saddle.  Four years ago I would not have been able to stay on the horse's back over a jump, so I have improved.


Heat and humidity make everything worse.  I can loose about a third of my IQ on a HOT day, and about half of my limited physical abilities.  My memory goes, and my ability to think something through slows way down.  I cannot remember detailed instructions.  I no longer know my right side from my left side, which can lead to some interesting figures!  My coordination and balance get really bad.  For some reason I am unable to start posting on the correct diagonal going to the right, so I start the trot, start posting on the wrong diagonal and have to change every time.  Luckily I can pick up the correct diagonal going to the left unless I am very, very tired and hot.  By the time I start sweating I pretty much have to give up keeping contact since I am physically unable to keep a constant pressure with the reins.  On a hot day my riding teacher usually has me ride back to the barn and she does not let me get off until we are in the shade.  I LOVE my riding teacher, she looks out for me!  At the same time she insists that I get a good work out since my riding keeps me strong enough to walk.


And the exhaustion does not end there.  I can get exhausted just thinking or reading about riding!  One day I read an article about a jumping clinic and by the end of the article I was so tired I had to sleep for 2 hours.  Since I am so clueless about such things as coordination and timing it can take me hours visualizing and studying the footfalls of each gait before I can figure out how to ask for a movement effectively.  I find this super exhausting.  The only reason it is worth my effort is that when I ask a horse to do something properly I end up using a lot less energy when I am riding.  It is so nice when the horse obeys a twitch of my little finger or a slight tightening of my leg, and it takes a lot less energy than having to repeat the aid or having to use a stronger aid.


I have often reflected on the irony that my favorite breed, the Arabian, is famed for its endurance, and that the types of riding I wanted to do--3-Day, open jumping or endurance racing, require a lot of stamina from the rider.  I should have gotten interested in the QH and Western Pleasure!  Even now, in my great exhaustion, I insist on riding Forward Seat just because it gives me the greatest security to cope with whatever the horse decides to do.  Of course riding FS properly takes a lot of physical endurance from the rider, since the seat was developed for riding at fast gallops cross-country over jumps, not for puttering around the ring at a walk.  I adapt.      


I do not find gaited riding any less exhausting.  When in a gait the horse's back moves more and it moves much more quickly than at a sitting trot.  I get just as tired and I do not get the physical conditioning I get from riding at the trot, plus my upper body leans back more and I start getting vertigo.   


This will be the last post on how my MS affects my riding.  I am tired of writing about everything I can't do on horseback.  Hopefully these articles on how my MS affects me will help other riders with MS, and I hope they will educate riding teachers so that they will know what they will face when teaching a person with MS.  Many people with MS are not as disabled as I am, and they can do a lot more on horseback than I can, and on the other hand there are a lot of people with MS who are a lot more disabled than I am.  I consider myself lucky since I don't have to be led around with spotters on both sides.  I learned how to ride decently before my MS crippled me.  I have a lot of knowledge about horses and riding, so the ladies who help me to ride sometimes learn things from me, this helps make up for all the extra work they do for me!  If I had not learned to ride when I was younger I do not think I would be able to ride effectively today.  I got my 10,000 hours of riding in when I still had energy.  As always, experience with horses really helps.  It means that I am still able to improve the horses I ride instead of just being a passenger. 


In many ways MS has improved my riding.  Because of my exhaustion I finally learned how to properly coordinate my aids.  Because of my limitations I am a lot more understanding when my horse has an off day.  I have learned to ask the horses to do things POLITELY.  I have learned to accept my limitations and therefore I no longer inadvertently punish horses when I don't get what I want, I now know that it is all MY fault if the horse is less than perfect.  I realize that just because I can get a horse to do something one day does not mean that I will ever be able to get that movement again, so I have learned to back off when my aids do not work.  In return the horses cooperate with me a lot more than they used to, and in an emergency they take care of me.  And sometimes, when I get everything right, the horses give me such movement that I've only dreamed of.  Then the next time I ride it is back to plodding around the ring.


I have MS.

I am crippled in many ways.

I am still a horseman.


I win.


Have a great ride!


Jackie Cochran



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Comment by Jackie Cochran on April 12, 2011 at 9:18am

Thank you for your kind comments Karen. 

Pride?  I just go with the flow. 

Sometimes I have to groom and tack up, but my teacher realizes that I am extra tired and isn't demanding.  But  she works me harder when she grooms and tacks up, knowing I have more energy.  Luckily Mia, one of the mares I ride, does not mind just walking around the ring, but she gets a little impatient if I have her stand more than a minute.

Comment by Karen Tweed on April 12, 2011 at 7:30am

All riders tend to focus on the things they are struggling with - us MSers have a few extra challenges.  On the flip, having MS makes us appreciate the blessing that horses are all the more.  Take a step back and celebrate everything you can and are doing.  You are an inspiration.  You didn't let MS win - you're out there riding in spite of it and the challenges it creates!  I've enjoyed reading your posts and you've given me lots of great ideas.  Fatigue is an issue for me too, and getting help tacking/untacking would really help me - I've just been too proud to ask.  Keep on riding!

Comment by Jackie Cochran on April 11, 2011 at 6:35pm
Isn't it amazing that so many horses have more energy than ANY human?
Comment by Jennifer Lamm on April 11, 2011 at 6:06pm

Horses are exhausting...... and even moreso for you my friend... I agree....


Comment by deb pawlyshyn on April 10, 2011 at 2:22pm
An incredible read. I will be remembering your words for a long time and especially when riding. Smart move on my part asking to be your friend.

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