by Andi Rudman
If you are reading this article, chances are your life has been changed by a horse. Almost every horse owner I have spoken to has a story of a horse offering solace in difficult times, or introducing them to a passion that has reshaped their lives. For me, horses have literally and figuratively put me back on my feet. I was born with a debilitating genetic condition that resulted in the severe malformation of my ribs, pelvis, hips and most dramatically, spine. In fact, I have only four anatomically correct vertebrae. I am in constant physical pain, and the majority of my time is spent trying to minimize that pain. Because of this, many people find it surprising that I ride horses, fearing that even sitting on a horse could cause me physical injury. They couldn’t be more wrong. For me, horseback riding functions as chiropractic, physical and psychological therapy all rolled into one.
It is easy to see how horseback riding could be psychologically therapeutic for a person with physical disabilities. Walking for more than a few minutes at a time is prohibitively painful for me, let alone running or hiking. A horse can lend me four strong legs and a healthy back so that I can experience the wind on my face or the beauty of a mountain trail. The fact that riding also helps me physically is what most people find so unlikely. Even my doctors and physical therapists were skeptical at first, but they now unanimously agree that I am healthier when I ride.
There are several aspects of riding that make it good for me. The first results from the physical movement of the horse’s back. When riding at a walk, a horse’s movement actually rocks the rider’s pelvis in a way that is almost identical to the way a pelvis should move in an ergonomic walk. Because my body is so abnormal, until I sat on a horse, my bones and muscles had never experienced what it felt like to walk correctly. This simple movement that all riders take for granted woke up muscles long dormant in my body and taught me how to walk correctly. The other important aspect to a horse’s gait is the fact that it is unpredictable. It forces you to grip with your core and balance against the movement. For years my physical therapists had struggled to find exercises to strengthen my core musculature without stressing my inflexible spine, when all I really needed to do was sit on a horse. As I became stronger, I was able to trot and canter, adding different movements to strengthen different parts of my atrophied body. It is amazing how quickly I find myself back in my wheelchair when I can’t ride often enough.
Having said all that, I wouldn’t recommend just anyone with medical issues jump on a horse and expect everything to get better. Making horseback riding work for me has been a difficult and never-ending journey. It has been a collaboration of doctors, physical therapists, riding instructors and family. The more severe the disability, the more care you must take in ensuring your safety. If you have issues with arthritis in your hips, all you may need is the right saddle to see improvement. If you are wheelchair bound, you should probably only ride with a set of trained professionals at a therapeutic riding stable. No matter where you are on the disability spectrum, making horse riding work for you comes down to three major components: motivation, logistics, and the right horse.
On some days, motivation is the easiest part of getting out to ride. On bad days it is the hardest by far. I never ride without increasing my pain at least somewhere, and sometimes I know that it will put me out of commission for multiple days. That said, the more I am able to ride the less it hurts. There are obvious exceptions for when I am in the middle of a severe flare up, or after a serious medical procedure, but as long as basic common sense is employed, the more times I can get myself out to the barn the better.
In my opinion, the best way to make sure I ride consistently is by surrounding myself with supportive people and setting a schedule. Even the most experienced riders can benefit from regular lessons, and for me, lessons are necessary in many ways. First of all, it sets times you must ride and goals you must complete. Sometimes just that is enough motivation to get me on a horse even on an exceptionally bad day. On top of that, you get a pair of eyes to let you know when your body is getting the best of you. Bad riding is worse than no riding at all when you are dealing with multiple physical limitations. It is important to find a trainer that understands those limitations, and can push you when you need to be pushed, but stop you when you are about to go too far. For more severe disabilities, I recommend going to a therapeutic riding stable, in particular one that specializes in physical rather than mental disabilities. For less severe physical issues, you will simply have to shop around to find a discipline and trainer that works for you.
Outside of lessons, having a group of people to ride with can make working through the pain feel worthwhile. When I don’t have anyone to ride with, I will have family or friends come and walk besides me as I ride. On days when getting out of bed feels like climbing a fourteener, getting on a horse without a second pair of hands and encouraging voice can simply be out of the question. I have found that asking a friend to come out to the barn can be the hardest part of getting them to go… almost everyone I have asked has made the time.
Riding with a disability is logistically much more challenging than riding without one. All the extra issues that must be accounted for can make it extremely frustrating. When I ride, I need to pick a day where riding is the only thing I have planned. If I plan to ride for more than an hour and a half, I have to make sure I have nothing big scheduled the day after, since I will require a lot of bed rest to recover. On top of that, I have to schedule my pain medication to be in full effect when I am at the barn. Even things like planning extra time to fit in a shower is important, as washing my hair is very painful on my malformed shoulder blades.
Once I am at the stable, I need to take things one step at a time. Walk out to catch my horse, then take a break. Pick feet, then sit for a minute. If I am using a saddle that weighs more than 12 pounds I need help saddling my horse, so I have to be at the barn with someone willing to lend a hand. If I am having a hard day, I may need someone to be with me who can catch my horse or help me mount. Outside of riding itself, I have to work on strengthening muscles that I use at the barn. My physical therapists work hard to help my bad leg stay strong in the stirrup, and my sticky shoulders be loose enough to curry my horse. Every physical disability or injury is different, and you simply have to be willing to make the extra effort. There is a lot of trial and error, and often it is easy to get carried away and overdo things. Planning is paramount if you want to make horse riding a way of life despite the obstacles.
The final ingredient required in making horseback riding feasible for people with physical limitations, is finding the right horse. The more severe the disability, the more important this step is. If you are wheelchair bound, have minimal control of your limbs, are easily injured or new to the horse world, you should only be riding a horse specifically trained as a therapy animal. Find a stable certified by the American Hippotherapy Association or the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship, as they will have horses and staff that can keep you safe. As soon as you leave a stable that is specialized in helping people with disabilities ride safely, choosing a horse becomes much more of a judgment call.
For any rider, finding the right horse is tricky business, but if you are disabled, the stakes are significantly higher. The most important rule when horse hunting is to be realistic about your expectations. If you have severe back issues, a beautiful warmblood with massive gaits will only make things worse. If you have a weak upper body, that adorably strong-headed pony is just asking for trouble. People who tend to have the hardest time with this are competent riders who end up with a disease or injury that causes limitations they never expected. It is important to remember that riding for pleasure can be just as rewarding as training for the jumper show season. Be willing to spend extra time finding a horse with the training, temperament and gaits that will work for you, and be careful not to get your heart set on a horse that could make your conditions worse. Look for a retired schoolmaster, your trainer’s best lesson horse or even a dude string pony that can take you down the trail with confidence. For any disability, I would recommend looking for a horse a hand shorter than what you would usually consider. Compromises will always have to be made, but try and focus on the things that can be changed, and don’t risk those that cannot. I recently bought a wonderful welsh cob who is short enough for me to saddle and mount, has a lovely temperament and smooth gaits, but required a little tune up when it comes to training. So far, this choice has been ideal, and the two of us are making excellent progress getting to know each other and enjoying the trails. Our current goal is to be able to join our barn’s outings, including full moon rides and even overnight trips. For me, this is only possible with the right horse.
I will never deny the fact that horse riding with physical limitations is difficult, but for me, the benefits far outweigh the costs. The barn is the one place I truly feel like I have a fully functioning body; I am not the girl in the wheelchair, I am simply me. In fact, when I told my trainer that I was going to be writing about riding with physical disabilities, she said, “Well, you aren’t really that disabled are you?” This made me want to cry. To her, this was true. The barn is the one place in the world where nobody sees the daily doctor appointments, the countless hours of bedrest, the handfuls of pills and the well-used wheelchair. It’s a place where I can get on my pony and ride just like anyone else at the stable, able to enjoy the freedom and partnership offered by equestrian sports. Horses have changed my life for the better, strengthening my body and mind, giving me a chance to feel, just for a moment, like I can truly do anything.