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Riding Horses with Multiple Sclerosis

Martha Skye Martin grew up riding horses. After her MS diagnosis in 1996, her hobby became hippotherapy; helping her improve her balance, coordination and strength through riding.

horseback riding with MS

My love affair with the horse started well before my diagnosis of MS. Company picnics with my family afforded opportunities to ride in the hills north of Los Angeles. My friends in junior high school discovered a horse rental facility between Sylmar and Sunland where we would ride for four hours at the astonishing cost of six dollars. There were no “helmet laws,” no waivers, no dress code. We would race those horses without any concern that we may fall off, be trampled, dragged or run off with.

When my mom and I moved to El Dorado County in 1972, I purchased my first horse “Tammy,” a behemoth of a horse. I was told she was half Morgan, half draft. She must have stood at least 17 hands (approximately 5 1/2 feet at the withers). I don't recall how I got on her as I never owned a saddle. I must have climbed up on the picnic table and got on her bareback. We’d ride to top of the hill where she would spin around and I, full of fear (please don’t kill me, Tammy!), would hang on as she trotted the quarter mile back home. I gave up on her and gave her to ROP. After unsuccessful training in ROP, I sold her to a gentleman as one half of a team that pulled wagons for Wagon Train Days in 1973. Tammy also got her picture in the Sacramento Bee breaking ground with a plow; and I understand she pulled logs in the Sierra in the wintertime.

A good friend in high school had horses; I took English riding lessons at UC Davis and Western equitation at BYU. (I feel it necessary to say that I’m no longer Mormon but instead practice Congregationalism at El Dorado Community Church.)

Starting Hippotherapy for MS

I was diagnosed with MS in 1996 on top of a 1980 diagnosis of Wilson’s disease.I became very active in squelching this “extremely stupid” disease by first denying it and then trying to beat it into submission. (The MS, Wilson’s disease is another book, literally.)

In 1998 I attended Tall Clubs International annual convention in Newport Beach, CA. One of the excursions was to Santa Catalina Island. Eight others and I rode horses up into the hills. I was the best rider amongst them and so basked in the glory of being such.

The best part about riding a horse is that once I’m on I’m equal with anyone else around me.

I don't recall how I found out about them, but a new hippotherapy facility opened in nearby Auburn, CA. I was highlighted in the Auburn Journal as one of their first participants. I was quite annoyed with the manner in which they portrayed me. The article stated that I was “terrified” at being so high off the ground! The horse I rode was a teeny little thing! How could they! How dare they?! I was mortified.

In 2001, I had very good job and had my very first vacation coming up. I decided that I would to go to a “Dude Ranch.” At this point in my life I was still walking fairly well. (I did not know that when I planned the vacation 9/11 was about to happen.) I found myself at Hunewill Guest Ranch at the end of September on what they call the Fall Color Ride. Oh, what a time I had! They had picked for me a beautiful quarter horse by the name Redman. With his little tornado blaze (could also be taken as a shiitake mushroom) he taught me things that I did not know I could do. I could hang on down the incredibly steep descent to the pack station without pitching over his head. I learned not to trust a downed log as a good booster step getting back on. And I found out that at least Redman likes molasses cookies. 

In those three days, I was thoroughly, completely, and without reason, in love and bonded to a horse that lives over 150 miles away from me.

In 2004 during the “Buckeye Canyon Gather,” I rode Redman from 8 a.m. to approximately 3:30 p.m. I ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich as a snack while moving cows through the canyon without stopping Redman. I had to give up after the late lunch and be trucked home with another woman. (Someone else rode Redman the rest of the way home.) The next day I went on a half day ride before lunch, and after lunch I felt my “gi” come back and I got on Redman without aid! I have had similar results riding to what I call the “pain.” If I’m not in total agony and want to kill myself and the horse (ha-ha), I just don’t get the same results: that of a total and complete remission of all symptoms, albeit transitory. I can’t say if this would work for someone else, but it certainly works for me. I call it the Redman cure.

MS Leg Symptoms Relieved by Horseback Riding

In 2005, I just happened upon a 22-year-old horse whose owner could no longer afford to keep her. Three quarter Arabian, one quarter Quarter, “Breezy” came home on August 15 of that year. I turned 48 six days later. I did not know that I could become thoroughly, completely, and without reason, in love and bonded to a horse that lives in my front and backyard! 

Yes, it’s sometimes extremely difficult to get on her, I’ve fallen from her many times, she sometimes does what she wants to do whether or not it’s what I want to, but all in all she’s the most wonderfully incredible gift from God and the best animal friend that I’ve ever had. She has what I call the “Breezy bounce” gait. It is somewhere between a walk and a trot. I call it her happy gait. I can sit this bounce bareback or on any one of my three different saddles. Depending on my mood one can find us riding English, dressage, or Western. (Not that I know how to ride dressage, but that doesn’t keep Breezy from doing her own dressage moves.)

The best part about riding a horse is that once I’m on I’m equal with anyone else around me. Breezy has four strong legs to my (on any given day) one to 1.5 legs. Also, merely sitting on a horse while the horse is walking makes one’s legs move as though they were walking, without the problems of tripping, falling over and fatigue (not that riding isn’t fatiguing, but it’s a good fatigue). While your legs are busy moving to the rhythm of the horse’s walk, oftentimes nerves reconnect and I’ve known many people who have regained the ability to walk better or even to get rid of most if not all MS leg symptoms.

My dream goal in life is to open a dude ranch for disabled folks. Who knows, this dream may come true someday. Until then, I’ll just keep riding!


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