For two days now, my hopes to ride have been doused by the weather. Thunderstorms and horses do not generally work well together; and even though I usually ride indoors, I can’t fool Max into thinking that the sun is shining outside. He knows what’s what and he’ll tell you about it if you need convincing. So, I have to accept that there will be no riding today. Bummer.
I’ve been “riding like a knight” at St. Andrews Presbyterian College’s therapeutic equestrian program for about seven years now after first learning about it at an MS support group meeting. Me and two of my MS buddies enrolled in the Ride-Like-A-Knight therapeutic program at the same time. We still ride each week, although not together anymore. Each of us have independent lessons and therapies that cater to our needs and ambitions. From the very first session, riding has been the most pro-active position I’ve taken against my own battle with multiple sclerosis.
What started as therapy has become a sport that engages all my abilities. The exercise is sometimes intense. It requires concentration and stamina that sometimes leaves me with sore muscles and fatigue. I know I’m in “the zone” when I feel the unity of horse and rider–the physical give and take, the action and reaction, and single-hearted focus of the moment.
For me, the most significant physical benefit of riding is a stronger sense of balance. My left side is most affected by numbness and spasticity: My gait is uneven, my leg is stiff, my reflexes are brisk–all of which undermine my center and the balance enabling forward and upright movement. Riding challenges those weaknesses by shifting the “centeredness” to my seat and spine. As the horse moves, I feel the diagonal beneath my torso instead of my legs and feet. Just after dismount, I have to give myself a couple of seconds to “find” my feet again; but the imprint of that centeredness on my seat and spine help to guide my steps with more confidence.
The physical conditioning is not the only benefit of riding in a good therapeutic program. I haven’t always groomed and tacked the horse(s) I ride, but now I do each time I go to the barn. The time I spend out of the saddle–grooming, tacking, warming up and cooling down–is a pleasurable responsibility that I take pride in. I want my horse to know and trust my touch and voice as both rider and caretaker; and he needs me to be confident of his language and actions as well.
My equestrian skills, from walk to trot to canter, have come a long way since that very first ride. Now, I’m an independent rider and I love it. I love the feel of the wind and sun on my face; the height and the sensation of gracefulness that I recognize in my center; the satisfaction of reaching a goal… but more than anything else, I appreciate having a passion that MS has not been able to squelch.
Symptoms and signs of MS can vary greatly, and the treatments also differ according to the progression of the disease; but the one common factor among all living with MS is its unpredictability. Flares and exacerbations can happen suddenly and without warning. Knowing that, folks with MS sometimes back away from things they’d like to do or places they’d like to go, fearing their MS could leave them stranded or shipwrecked.
An established riding routine has helped me to overcome the worrisome unpredictability of MS in several ways, but mostly by giving me something to look forward to. Sometimes I can’t physically make it to the barn because of the MS; and then, sometimes I don’t get to ride because of thunderstorms. It helps to look at both bummer circumstances in the same way.
Come Monday and clear skies, I’ll be at the barn.