A couple months ago we journeyed to Little Bit. The therapeutic riding center in our area. Our goal was to find an organization helping cerebral palsy improvement. Their hippotherapy was the main interest of our visit. We learned about how riding a horse has the ability to improve the ability to walk. The motion of the horse can assist in helping strengthen muscles needed to walk. Little Bit has worked with clients who may significantly reduce their time in a wheelchair by spending time on horseback. As they progress in riding, the time moving through life without the wheelchair may grow. Looking for new ways to accomplish cerebral palsy improvement has been an interest. While learning about the improvements found from riding horseback, the idea of trying entered my mind. Soon after our meeting with Little Bit, my horse riding journey took flight. The process began with paperwork, finding the time to ride, then scheduling an assessment. It had been years since riding a horse. In fact, the only time being on any horse was during my years of junior high. We went on a family vacation and riding looked to be a fun activity. The memories of that day are fuzzy, but one strong memory was the excitement. So, I was looking forward to this adventure.
When arriving for the assessment there was a short meeting. There would be someone in charge of leading me through the process. They came out into the lobby holding my paperwork inside a file. We talked over some of my goals for learning to ride a horse. My feeling was seeking cerebral palsy improvement. In the areas of balance and bodily control. Having heard those were a couple areas riding seemed to be helping. The interest lie in how riding could help my personal cerebral palsy challenges. My leader wondered how far my horse riding could progress in my opinion. Could the goal of galloping or jumping on a horse be of interest? The statement took me back, having never considered jumping with a horse. My response carried the emotions of remaining open to the new journey. Wherever the endeavor of horse riding might lead, my heart would remain open to follow. If riding carried me all the way to clearing jumps on the back of a horse, that would be quite the accomplishment. Having been on one horse in my life, to that point. Our next step was to find a helmet. The leader had brought one out for starters. She had a good eye, because the helmet fit well. As I asked for help with the snap, the leader was right there without trouble. The helmet was securely protecting my head, as we rose to walk outside.
We walked out of the main building at Little Bit. Walking along an exterior path, leading into an area where the horse stalls were located. The area was familiar from our tour of the stables a few months prior. Instead of taking a left turn and walking into the stables, we climbed a ramp. The ramp took us in a path of doubling back, up two small ramps. Once finding the top, we were walking out onto a platform. The raised area overlooking the arena. There was a lower platform just feet in front of where we stood. The gap was there for the horse to walk up, accepting their rider from one of the two platforms. We stayed on the higher of the two platforms. Moments later a large white horse came walking into the arena. His name was Cesar and he began walking toward us with three women gathered around. The women would help with my stability once on the horse. Cesar took his time walking across the arena, stopping many times. He seeming needed to take a moment, but nothing ever materialized. Maybe he was just killing some time. As the large animal walked my way, the nervousness could be felt throughout my body. Before seeing Cesar, I felt good about riding a horse. Now, as the moments drew near, uncertainty crept into my thoughts. This appeared to be more challenging than I originally thought riding might have been.
Suddenly it was a long way to the ground from the back of Cesar. He finally made it alongside the platform where we stood. The saddle was soft on his back and void of any footholds. My feet would dangle at his side during the ride. Visible were two black handles sitting gently along his neck. When Cesar was resting in front of me, it was time to climb on. His back was just above the height of the platform. Looking at Cesar before swinging my leg over, my hand placement was a concern. Devin informed me the hands could rest anywhere comfortable. So, my right leg went over his back, with the usual stiffness cerebral palsy challenges me with. All of a sudden, my riding experience had begun. There were two small straps on the front part of the saddle for me to hold. With someone flanking my left and right side, while another held the lead rope, the words “walk on” were spoken, and off we went. The motion of my body as Cesar took his steps felt unique. The impact to my hips and core were unquestionable, attempting to maintain body position while his body turned. There were two amazing ladies alongside resting their hands on me, helping me maintain balance. It was challenging to understand as we began, just how crucial these two women would become.
Our first movements were walking around the outside of the arena. Cesar was being led completely by the woman holding the lead rope. Devin was providing direction for the rope lead. The steps guiding the movements of Cesar continuing around the outside of the arena. After about half a lap, Cesar stopped and was instructed to turn around, heading back from where we came. My hands were still free of any control, but my body could be felt, slightly leaning to the right of the horse. As we circled back around, I continued an attempt to sit up straight. It was time to take hold of the handles and perform our first action. Devin asked us to walk on further, then slightly pull with my left handle, having Cesar walk in a circle. There would be two unforeseen troubles with the request. As we started the circle, my tug on the left handle was too strong. The pull caused Cesar to move in a tighter circle than Devin had in mind. Our second problem was me leaning my upper body into the turn, as you might with a bike or motorcycle. My weight swung to the right, almost falling off the horse. Luckily, for everyone involved, Kathy was on my right side, holding me against an unquestioned fall without her support. Following the near disaster, Devin explained how to shift my weight on Cesar when he turns. She also had Michele, on my right side, hold my left ankle while riding. It would provide that leg some extra weight, helping me straighten up my posture on Cesar. We also discussed keeping my core engaged to steady myself on the horse. Then, we walked a bit, and tried the circle again.
The second attempted circle turned out differently. We traveled back down the arena about halfway. There, the handle was pulled again to begin the turn. This time my pull was much gentler, just slightly pulling. Cesar seemed to appreciate the ability to avoid whiplash and we found a more rounded circle. The other correction needing to be made was my weight distribution. Instead of leaning like the first circle, this one found me remaining centered. The core was tightened, as my left hip shifted into the corner, rather than my left shoulder. We accomplished the second circle with more ease and a feeling of positive improvement. The assessment would be over with one final step. In my mind, getting off Cesar would be conducted at the platform, just like getting on had happened. However, this wasn’t part of the plan. Devin had Cesar stop in the middle portion of the arena. She asked if I was willing to try dismounting where Cesar had come to a stop. Devin explained how it was done, either swing my leg forward to sit sidesaddle to hop down. Or, swinging my leg around the back and slide off Cesar. The latter option was chosen, without truly knowing if it were possible. I leaned forward with my hands gently placed on his neck, swung my leg around, and slide down without falling. It was one of those moments of doing something thought to be impossible without falling. I gave Cesar some love and thanked him for helping me through the challenge. He showed some love back by nudging my hand and our time together had concluded for now.
The riding assessment was only the first step of this journey. As we walked back into the main building a sense of accomplishment ran through my emotions. Standing on the platform waiting for Cesar to walk across the arena brought anxiety. In the moment, I wondered if this would be productive. Feeling like the horse was sensing my fear and taking his time. The moments before leaving the platform made the final moments so rewarding, when Cesar and I interacted. The women helping me learn to ride reacted positively to our interaction. It was as if we both came into the assessment with some fear. Learning to rely on someone can take courage. I realized quickly not only was I relying on Cesar, but he was relying on me as well. When we finished, it felt important to show my appreciation for Cesar. We didn’t give up on the process even when nervous energy filled the air. When asked if I wanted to try another horse, there was no doubt sticking with my new buddy was the right decision. Who knows where this journey will take us, understanding there will be much to learn about interacting with a horse. It will be fun to learn how riding can help cerebral palsy improvement. Watching my coordination, strength, and body awareness improve. But, maybe as important could be the things I learn from creating an emotional bond with a horse.
For more information please contact:
Executive Director Paula J. Del Giudice at Little Bit Therapeutic Riding Center
425-882-1554 ext. 103
For more resources on cerebral palsy improvement please contact:
Peter R. Turner at CPWithUs consulting