Back in the Saddle

The past two weeks have just pointed out to me that I NEED to ride horses to treat my Multiple sclerosis. I started off OK, I was slightly progressing in the difficulty of my minimal exercises, I was walking faster, needed fewer rest stops, and my muscles were getting stronger. Then—I hit the proverbial brick wall, everything got harder to do, I could not do as much, and I ended up feeling like I was in a deep, deep exhaustion. Then the dizzy spells hit, really odd dizzy spells which started off with a tingling below my calf muscles, which then rapidly ascended to my brain and I got too dizzy to do anything. For four days my husband had to wash the dishes, I would try but then the dizziness came and I had to, had to go lie down again. Bummer!

I called Debbie early in the week, hoping for a lesson on Wednesday, and to discuss how to get me back riding with minimal danger to me from the darn COVID-19 virus. My fabric face mask had come in, I had adapted it somewhat for my smaller face, and I was ready to ride again in spite of the pandemic. But Debbie has several children coming in on Wednesday morning for their lesson after I ride and Debbie did not want me exposed to them (because of the danger of asymptomatic carriers.) We settled on Friday morning at 8:30 AM.

Debbie was just bringing Bingo in when we drove up. She started grooming him while I rested up, then I got myself up, got my head grooming tools, and brushed his mane, face and ears. I got his hats and fumbled putting his BOT poll cap on, Debbie looked at me and told me to go sit down again and let her and my husband finish getting Bingo ready, and she told my husband he needed to drive me to the riding ring.

It had rained the night before and the riding ring was really sloppy, no big lakes but definitely large puddles. I mounted up, Debbie looked at me in the saddle, and started leading Bingo around the puddles as I got my body moving with Bingo's back and I did some two-point. Usually I loath having someone lead a horse I'm riding, I feel like I have little control over the horse and most leaders have some tendency to get too close to my lower leg, more than once I had to quickly raise my leg so it would not hit the leader! But Debbie is a good leader, Bingo was pleasantly cooperative, and after a few minutes Debbie let me proceed on my own.

Since Bingo's training had degraded every other time after a long break from being a lesson horse I was expecting to have some problems, especially with his response to the bit. I did have his favorite bit on the bridle (the Fager “Bianca” roller snaffle) and he reacted to my aids wonderfully, no resistance, no lag in obedience, and no “are you REALLY sure about this”. His response to my leg aids was almost as good, there was not hint of balking though my shifting seat must have been irritating, he kept his back loose and swinging, and he did pretty decent turns in place. When I sent him to Debbie for praise after a much improved turn on the hindquarters he strode toward her full of confidence and as she petted him and crooned at him Bingo started nuzzling her, something he had not done before. At that moment I got the feeling that Bingo had MISSED being the center of attention, had MISSED getting praised and lauded to the skies, and that he was happy that the universe was back to “normal” with two experienced horsewomen telling him how wonderful he was.

I tried doing the “rider's push-up” then, but I could only do one instead of my usual three, I was just too weak physically. We puttered around the ring for a few more minutes, working on turns in place and then I asked him to back up—and he cooperated with a relaxed mouth instead of his usual iron jaw. When my lesson was over I got off nearer to the gate than usual and I asked Debbie to press my left knee into the saddle and I got off without any problems.

My short walk to the car was sort of unsteady and I was TIRED. I let Debbie and my husband deal with getting the tack off of Bingo and into the car, I was already improving physically as I was able to walk up to Debbie to schedule my lesson next Friday morning. When I got home I was walking even better to my front door, I was not walking perfectly but definitely better than earlier in the morning. I collapsed on my bed for most of the day but when I got up I did not get dizzy. When it came time to wash the dishes I was mostly recovered and I succeeded for the first time in days. This morning is the same, I am walking better, I feel more secure on my own two feet, and I am not getting as tired.

Horses, especially when I ride the horses, act like a medicine to my body. This is in addition to the super effective physical therapy I get from riding.

I do not know if it is pheromones, the dander, the hair mites, molecules given off from the tack warmed up by the horse's body heat, or breathing in air that contains the exhalations of the horse's breath, something about being close, really closely touching a horse, acts better than any medicine prescribed to me by a doctor to get my body moving PROPERLY again. This medicine starts acting immediately, longer exposure gets it working better, and the effects are long lasting, improvements in my nerve conduction stay evident for days, my balance stops being wonky, I can coordinate the movement of my limbs better, and I can walk instead of just shuffling around.

I always KNEW that the physical therapy riding the horse at a walk was very important for keeping my ability to walk. It was so obvious, no matter how badly I am walking when I get up on the horse, I walk so much better when I get off even if I am exhausted. But what I noticed yesterday after riding was even more than this, SOMETHING entered my body that worked like a good medicine, improving me from the inside out.

So far there is no cure for MS. This horse medicine though, combined with the physical therapy from riding, is so effective in improving my body, AND the good effects last for days, and sometimes weeks. I improve every time I ride a horse, and every time I do not get to ride a horse for weeks I get worse even though I do targeted exercises within my limited physical ability.

And riding a horse cures my soul.

I hope you get to ride in the midst of the pandemic.

Have a great first ride back when things open up again.

I sure did!

Jackie Cochran

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