It was the first day of my adaptive riding class. The nervous energy could be felt throughout the overcast morning. There wasn’t any way to know how the class was going to function. It felt like flying blind after only being on a horse twice in my life. The second time just a month prior for my riding assessment. My hope was to be riding the same horse, Cesar from my assessment. But, it felt important to be open for anything. The drive from home to the riding center was going smoothly. In the middle of the day the roads were void of any heavy traffic. The nerves however, continued to increase as the car wound through the streets. The day was a bit chilly, so before pulling out, my vest was a last-minute addition. Pulling into the riding center revealed a crowded parking lot. Seemingly fuller than my previous visits had been. Driving toward the front of the building revealed the same multiple options to park. Glancing at the clock showed about ten minutes to spare. The time was taken to calmly make sure I had everything that might be needed. Once satisfied of reviewing everything, I took a deep breath, and removed myself from the car. It was time for my new journey on horseback to begin.
Walking through the door, my nerves could still be felt. The person behind the front desk kindly asked if they could help. After speaking of the class I had arrived for, they requested my name, and turned to look at the clipboard. Devin has told me after the assessment to remember the number of the helmet I had worn. So, for the entire month, the number 22 was floating around my mind. When the desk checked me in, the helmet number was with my name, helmet 22 appeared from the back room. I was informed to meet everyone at the tack barn, which was slightly remembered from our original meeting. Minutes later, standing outside the tack barn, there were a number of horses in stalls with people milling around them. Standing there for a few minutes, no one was saying a word, it was my fish out of water moment. Soon, a kind woman walked up and asked if I was there for a class. She took my name, checked a clipboard, and walked me to another location. Up a couple ramps we ascended and onto a platform overlooking the riding arena. Similar to the one my assessment took place inside, but this arena appeared slightly larger. It was the same arena we looked out onto during our first visit to Little Bit.
Similar to the arena in which the assessment took place, we walked onto a platform. This time there was a gate between us and the area for loading onto the horse. The same small aisle way existed between our platform on one side and a lower platform on the other. Walking in found me exchanging greeting with a fellow rider. After just a few minutes past, a third person joined us, we each greeted our new arrival. It gave us three people and as we looked out over the arena, three horses were walking in anticipation. Our instructor came over to say hello, beginning the process of pairing each of us with our horse. The two ladies were placed on their horses, each without trouble. Standing back as they climbed aboard, the nervous anticipation continued to mount. My back against a rail with my palms facing down against the wood railing. Looking out into the arena I could see a white horse, but it didn’t quite look like Cesar. Because, my class would find me paired with another horse. Loki was his name, looking tall and sturdy. Instead of the soft saddle of Cesar, Loki wore a more traditional looking saddle, complete with foot holds, which weren’t a part of my assessment. When it became my turn, my leg went over the back of Loki, and easing into the saddle was smoother than anticipated. We gently walked away from the loading platform. Once away from the platform, my feet were placed in the stirrups, and were functionally ready to begin.
The adaptive riding class started with some comforts of the assessment. There would be one person on each side of the horse, keeping me from falling. They began with arms across my legs to help the feeling of security. The reins were new from the assessment and were lifted as Loki started his walk around the outside of the arena. Our instructor called out things for me to focus on while riding. The immediate tip was to sit up straight with my shoulders held back. It was challenging to engage my core and remain seated tall in the saddle. But, that was the place my focus remained throughout the hour. Cerebral palsy has a tendency to draw the body into a closed position. Finding comfort with the shoulders rolled forward, as my body tends toward wanting to be collapsed into the fetal position. Making our first loop around the arena, while focusing on posture brought to memory my youth. They continued reminding me to keep my shoulders back and down. Attempting to relax them by taking long deep breaths. There was so much going through my head. Trying to learn how to hold good posture and remain relaxed, while sitting high off the ground on an animal. It was a situation of so many unfamiliar variables. The encouragement continued, as the level of concentration was shown all over my face. Though uniquely challenging for the entire hour, one thing wasn’t leaving my face, a smile.
Working with Loki for that hour was one of the most enjoyable challenges. The feeling continued permeating around the endless things to learn. Memories of my mom telling me to keep my shoulders back as a child kept running through my mind. Mom had a tendency of walking up behind me and pulling them back into place. The feeling always bothered me, as I would try pinching them together for a moment, before they inevitably slouched back into place. When riding, there didn’t seem to be the option of allowing the shoulders to sink. They had to remain pinched back into that position mom had them pulled into. It was the only way to maintain good balance on the horse, having me regret not concentrating more in my youth. However, it never feels too late for learning something new. Even as the riding class got going, the impact on muscles throughout my body could be felt. Gaining the strength to sit tall in the saddle would carry positive impacts on cerebral palsy symptoms. Helping strengthen the muscles we use to walk. These requirements of riding horseback, had me understanding how the activity helps people spend more time walking, and less time using devices to assist movement. The class was already surpassing expectation.
As the week has progressed something continues tugging at my mind. There was something about the riding experience that has been challenging to place into words. The smile didn’t leave my face through the entire class. As being on horseback provided a new feeling. The word that continues popping into my mind has been freedom. It felt free to be working with Loki, as we learned to weave through a row of cones. Or, the first attempts of walking in a circle, which happened too shallow the first time. Like the assessment, it took a second attempt to better understand the messaging through the use of reins. The movements with my body continued to be challenging. Learning how to shift my body weight through the corners, turning with Loki rather than against him. The motion and the challenge left me feeling alive. Bernard suggesting the feeling might come from the freedom of movement. His son having just spent two years learning to ride horseback. The body may be freer of cerebral palsy, learning to move more naturally through the motion of Loki. The concept made good sense to me, helping place words with the feeling of that hour. We ended the beginning class by exiting the arena for a small trail ride. Where the lessons involved weight shifting when walking down the hill and back up another. The trail provided more opportunity to work on adjusting my body through each corner. Before long we arrived back in the area and the hour had ended. I unloaded Loki back onto the platform instead of the middle of the area, another goal to work toward as the classes progress. A thank you for the kind women helping me and walking toward the car left me excited for the following week. Many challenges awaited with this new-found activity.
Walking out to my car left me feeling excited for the following week. All the stories couldn’t prepare me for the emotion of actually riding a horse. Being told or watching videos on how riding could help cerebral palsy symptoms. It was challenging to truly interpret until spending the hour with Loki. The amazing part of walking toward the car was the soreness in my body. Coming to mind in the hours after the ride was something Bernard speaks about. In the body, we have an area from above the knee to below the chest controlling much of our balance. Including the hips and core, which help stabilize our movement. This was the exact area of soreness from the hour-long class. The tenderness only brought into further focus how movement can be improved with the activity. Pair those feelings with the pure joy of riding and it seems we’re on to something. The riding will continue each week for at least the next few months. Of course, the winter weather might hold us back a time or two. But, hopefully not too many hours will be lost. My partnership with Loki will hopefully grow, as we take on new challenges together. While, it seems clear after the first lesson, my strength will grow, and movement will improve. The experience this week leaves me hopeful, not only for my own improvement, but for others with cerebral palsy who want better movement. The riding seems like it will help much more than the physical limitations. As bonding with an animal can improve our ability to positively connect. Riding seems like another option to improve our disability.
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