Therapeutic Horseback Riding
was a very cold, windy day in a barn in Central Florida
as a group of 15 MSers, many with their care partners, was bundled in heavy
jackets and gloves to hear about therapeutic horseback riding. That February
morning we were sitting in an open barn at the Marion Therapeutic Riding
Academy (MTRA) which is located in Ocala,
Florida, an area noted for its horse
farms. We were at MTRA preparing for a 10-session once-a-week course. This
opportunity was provided to the members of the Marion County MS Support Group (MCMS)
and The Villages MS Support Groups (MSVP) with funding from Teva Neuroscience
and facilitated by the MS Foundation.
The success of the program is made possible by a paid staff of
2-½ people who direct the program and more than 100 dedicated, caring and infinitely
patient volunteers who make the program both possible and enjoyable.
featured speaker was Dr. Seema R. Khurana, D. O., a physiatrist with the University Of Miami Miller School Of Medicine. Dr.
Khurana is one of six physiatrists in the United States with special training
in Multiple Sclerosis. As a physiatrist Dr. Khurana coordinates patient therapies
including occupational, therapeutic and speech therapies to maximize benefit to
the MS patient and she recognizes therapeutic horseback riding as a positive therapy
for the MS patient.
Dr. Khurana spoke, the MTRA Program Director described the program. She started by asking
“Why a horse”? Both the shape of the
horse’s back and the horse’s movements make it a good choice. Sitting on the horse can stretch hip joints
and reduce pain and spasticity in the muscles of the legs. The horse’s pelvis moves in the same three ways
as our pelvis-- up and down, back and forth and side to side. Therefore, the
movement of the horse simulates the way we walk. While riding, the movement of
the rider’s hips can increase limberness in their legs and can increase muscle
can also improve balance, strengthen core and leg muscles and improve
coordination and posture. It can improve general feeling of well being, self control,
and self esteem that come with learning a new skill while having social
interaction among other riders and between the rider and the horse.
she finished speaking we were fitted for a helmet and horse.
I had never ridden a horse so I was excited
and apprehensive as I began the ‘fitting’ process.
participant is assigned a particular horse based on their mobility. The horse
is led into a narrow lane formed by two saddle-high raised platforms; one on
either side of the horse for easier mounting. After mounting their horse, stirrups
are adjusted and stirrup lengths and helmet size are noted for future sessions.
We signed up in groups of five riders for
the classes which would begin the next week.
following Friday five of us arrived for our first hour-long class. Each session
begins with the rider brushing their horse. This introduces the rider to the
horse and is soothing for both rider and horse. After mounting their horse each
rider is evaluated according to their abilities to see if additional
accommodations are needed.
staff and volunteers work individually with riders who need additional
assistance. For those who experience balance and/or spasticity problems,
accommodations can be made to make them feel more secure. A rider who leans to
one side, because of tightness in the muscles on one side of their body, may
wear a belt with handles on each side which allow the side walkers to
straighten their body as they ride. For some, sitting straight feels like they
are too far to the opposite side and feel like they are falling, but with help
from the well-trained volunteers and instructors, they work together to overcome
this feeling and gain confidence.
staff is expert at accommodating for individual needs. Most ride with English
saddles, but those who have difficulty sitting on a saddle ride on a blanket
without a saddle. One of our riders who experienced spasticity in her right leg
and hip could not stretch her right leg and hip across the horse’s back to
mount from the traditional left side. Therefore, the horse was backed into the
boarding lane and the rider was able to mount her horse from the right,
throwing her left leg across the horse. This rider also said that the muscles
of her leg and hip relaxed during the session.
I was a bit fearful at first, I realized it is important that I trust the
well-trained professionals (which includes the horse) to provide for my safety,
ride under a large covered pavilion with a volunteer walking the horse on a lead
and two side walkers. We ride around the pavilion while we get used to the feel
of the horse’s movement. We focus on the position of our body and maintain good
circling the pavilion several times while getting comfortable with the movement
of the horse, we ride to the center of the ring, release the reins and begin
upper body exercises and stretches. This not only works the arms, but encourages
good posture and balance while strengthening the muscles of the torso.
the class the instructors coach us on our position in the saddle and stress
that each of us should progress at the level of our ability. If we have pain,
muscles spasm or other discomfort, we stop riding while we adjust our position
or stretch the affected area to relieve the problem.
addition to working our upper body, we work the muscles of the thigh and leg.
As our horse approaches a narrow board on the ground, we push our body off the
saddle and sit when the horse steps over the beam. We repeat the exercise. Lifting
off the saddle by pushing into the stirrups works the muscles of the thigh and
leg. Another exercise for leg strengthening is the two-point position which
involves grabbing the horse’s mane, leaning forward over its neck and pushing
our body off the saddle into a position similar to a jockey’s.
learn to control our horses by using the reins and our knees and with commands
of “Walk on”, “Back” and Whoa”. We
practice turning by navigating around a series of small cones placed in a line,
then riding to the right of the first one, to the left of the second, etc.
the class is over my legs are tired, but I enjoy the time I spend at MTRA and
am proud of what I have accomplished.
following are quotes from members of our class: In a recent conversation with
her neurologist, Francee F.: thanked him sincerely for signing the papers
allowing her to take the class. “Except for water for walking, there is nothing
better that I do. I am very thankful. When
I moved here (to The Villages) I used to do line dancing. Now I do ‘mostly
sitting’. I enjoyed this so much, I went even when the weather wasn’t good”
(too hot or rainy).
B.: “My goal was to see if I could do
it. And I did! It was wonderful. I
wanted to see if I could get on a horse and I could and I did. I love being on
my horse and I love feeding him apples.”
P.: “The program is well thought out and implemented. It incorporated the
skills and preparation needed to accommodate people with multiple sclerosis. I
was so impressed with the dedication, care and professionalism of the entire
staff. My balance improved. My stamina improved and my coordination improved.”
four riders in our group who completed the 10-week session are looking forward
to participating in the fall session when it will be cooler. One of our riders
left the program two weeks early for surgery, but hopes to join us in the fall.
If she is not medically cleared to ride, she would like to join us to renew the
friendships she made and to spend time with her horse.
behalf of our riders, I would like to thank the MS Foundation, Teva
Neuroscience and Jean McGrail, Facilitator of the MCMS Group, for making this
program possible and for introducing us to an experience which we never thought
would be possible.
members of our 5-rider class are from The Villages MS Support Group (MSVP) at
The Villages, Florida
which is a 55-and-older “Active Living Community.” The MSVP web site is www.mssupportgroup.orgMTRA is “Supported through a grant from the Multiple Sclerosis Foundation."