Sep 12, 2014

"There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man" ~ Winston Churchill

There are many forms of therapy that an individual can undergo with many forms of illness.  Some conventional, some not so much.  Part of the frustration of not being officially diagnosed lies with the inability to properly advocate your options for your own care.  There are numerous studies in our region even, such as through the Dalhousie Dept. of Medicine where PD patients can participate to help with more research and in turn possibly a cure.  Clinical trials, Natural treatments, you name it.  So many options that can be explored other than the simple pharmaceutical approach and typical treatments such as Physiotherapy and Occupational Therapy.  Sadly without an official diagnosis a patient is often in limbo and at the mercy of a drug with no real options to explore alternatives until it becomes 'official'.  This is a part of my frustration on this journey, although I am extremely grateful for how far I've come since my initial trip to Saint John in April.  Slowly we are getting there, but confirmation at this point would be a nice thing as strange as that may sound.

I have however taken some control outside of being at the mercy of a drug.  Now don't get me wrong, I'm not opposed to the pharma way if it helps, but it would be nice to have other options as well.  And so far my little yellow friend Levodopa has made parts of my life easier for periods of time and for that I find joy in that part of the journey.  However once I was told at that first appointment in SJ that it was suspected I may have Young Onset Parkinson's, and then that opinion being seconded by the Movement Disorder Neurologist there 6 weeks later I started reading.  A lot.  Read some books, read nearly every article I could online about PD, joined just about every PD network I could through social media and beyond.  There is power in knowledge so I try and saturate my brain with this stuff.  Upon some of that research I stumbled across Equine Therapy or Therapeutic Riding.  This sparked a big interest in me since I have always had a love for horses and did do a bit of riding in my teens.

Wikipedia explains Therapeutic riding like this:
Horses provide a unique neuromuscular stimulation when being ridden through their one of a kind movement. Horses move in a rhythmic motion that mimics the human movement of walking. While riding, the horses stride acts to move the rider's pelvis in the same rotation and side-to-side movement that occurs when walking. The horses adjustable gait promotes riders to constantly adjust the speed to achieve the desired pelvic motion while promoting strength, balance, coordination, flexibility and confidence.
The amount of benefit gained through therapeutic riding differs from person to person based on many factors such as the type of disability, severity of disability, motivation of the rider and connection between horse and rider. Unlike exercise machines that only focus on one muscle group at a time and do not use natural body movements, riding forces the rider to make use of the entire body to steer, control, adjust the horse and maintain balance. Because horses require not only physical skill but also cognitive skill for achievement, riding reveals the strengths and weaknesses of the rider. While most traditional therapeutic techniques often reach a plateau where the patient may lose motivation, the pleasure and excitement of riding acts to encourage patients to work through the pain and discomfort. The act of accomplishing something many able-bodied people are afraid to try is a benefit to those with disabilities in itself.

The physical benefits of Equine Therapy are incredible.  The list includes:
  • Improved balance and muscle strength
  • Improved coordination and faster reflexes
  • Increased muscular control
  • Improved postural control
  • Decreased spasticity
  • Increased range of motion of joints
  • Stretching of tight or spastic muscles
  • Increased endurance and low-level cardiovascular conditioning
  • Stimulates Sensory integration
  • Improved visual-spatial perception
  • Improved gross and fine motor skills

  • Now that all being said/read and being a lover of horses and always wanting to learn to ride English better why wouldn't I want to check this natural option out?  So that's just what I did.  My daughter had been taking riding lessons a while back from Amanda Tweety of Giddy Up Acres located just about 5 minutes from my house.  So I sent her a message asking if she would be interested in taking me on.  She thankfully said yes!

    Now, what's really incredible about Amanda is she knows why I am there.  I am not simply another lesson to her.  She knows that I am there to maintain muscle control in my legs and help my balance.  So my first round of lessons were on a big boy named Roy.  A fairly lazy fellow and as she called it after the fact "a good confidence booster horse".  Of course I did not know at the time that this is why she gave him to me.  As I started to progress, got my mind wrapped around the art of posting and practiced some techniques from years gone by she knew that my body needed a more challenging horse.  So TBone was my next friend.

    Roy, the first guy I was riding!  My sweet little Izabella loves horses and she always enjoys a little walk with Momma on the horsie when my lesson is over!
    Now TBone is a much faster horse than Roy.  But also required more leg strength. Roy was lazy so I would use a stick to get him to trot where as if you used that on TBone he'd be gone up the field likely in a minute, most likely with me left behind on the ground!  Ha!  He however required a squeeze each time you sat back in the saddle from your post to keep him moving.  I went to that first lesson with him excited thinking how easy it was going to be compared to a lazy horse and boy was I wrong.  I learned very quickly that day why Amanda chose to switch me to this horse.  My leg strength was clearly not as good as I thought it was and it was and continues to be quite a challenge for me.  I struggle on bad days with keeping my heels down and legs back in the proper position.  I am however now conscious of my wrong position and therefore focus on those muscles and keeping them where they should be.  It's very much a mental and physical activity and a sweat fest most days.  For anyone that's never ridden and I don't mean a trail ride where you just sit with the horse on auto pilot and have ridden English style you'll know that it is most definitely a form of exercise.  It can be hard work.  But it's particularly hard work with an often uncooperative body.  So for me it serves a double purpose.  Therapy & Exercise combined.  Both very important for my body.
    I've noticed some small changes in the left side of my body whereas so far my issues have been contained to the right.  When I went for my lesson last week I woke up thinking, this is a good body day, I'm going to have a great ride!  Well, it's funny how sometimes you can think it's a good day because perhaps you actually got a little sleep the night before, or your tremor is mild when you wake up, or you're able to move a little easier before you get your morning pill in, or you're not experiencing any major pain.  Until... you try and do something physical.  This was one of those days.  Once I got up on that horse I realized it was not a good body day at all.  While in the saddle I struggled to keep my body still.  My legs were not staying in place and simply did not want to move or do what I was trying to get them to do.  My poor position and moving body confused Tbone which in turn frustrated me.  But I did learn some new techniques on how to maintain control of him on days like that with my reigns, so it was still a great lesson.  But when I got off him I had legs that were like bowls full of jello and I could barely walk. 
    It's clear to me now after nearly 5 months of weekly lessons that there is no doubt in my mind that Therapeutic Riding is beneficial to me in amazing ways.  Both mentally and physically.  It's also clear to me that Amanda is very much a part of my "care team".  Although she may not have a medical background she knows why I'm there, cares that I get the benefit I require out of it and adjusts my lessons accordingly.  On days she can tell I'm struggling to get my body to work the way it should she alters her plan for that lesson to accommodate my body's needs.  On days she sees me mount and can tell it's a good body day, she pushes things a bit more teaching me new things, doing a bit more.  Either way I know in my heart that to her I am not just another riding lesson client.  Not just another client that she goes through the motions of teaching.  I am to her a client that she is flexible with and patient with and understands my needs and my limited abilities, but still pushes me to try new things in a safe manor.  I thoroughly enjoy my lessons even on the days where I leave frustrated and soar because even if my body didn't cooperate that well I love the horses and they make me feel peaceful and comforted and give me a little fun while getting therapy.  It's been a joyful experience for both mind and body and I'm so grateful that I found this option for treatment and that I found the perfect teacher for me.

    "The mind and body are like parallel universes.  Anything that happens in the mental universe, must leave tracks on the physical one" Deepak Chopra

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