There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man. Winston Churchill
This quote introduces one of Natasha McCarthy’s recent blogposts about her life with young onset Parkinson’s disease. The 37-year-old mother of two young daughters shares her journey and her joyous re-connection with horses, the health benefits of riding and the helpful coaching of her riding instructor Amanda Tweety. Together, they have provided her with just the right exercise.
Therapeutic riding or equine therapy has been well studied in different patient populations – from people with MS to seniors and from children to people with other neurological conditions – as an effective exercise for improving balance and gait. In addition, the psychological benefits are well-documented and of course, for many, it’s great fun.
As Natasha dealt with the 15-month odyssey to confirm her diagnosis (there is no movement disorders neurologist in PEI where she lives), she did plenty of research about Parkinson’s, connected with Parkinson Society Maritime Region, joined online networks and hunted for possible ways to keep active and improve her muscle control and balance. She stumbled upon therapeutic riding and her interest was sparked.
“I had always had a love of horses and I had done some riding in my teens,” she says. “Why not try to regain and improve my English-style riding?”
Natasha’s daughter had recently taken some lessons from Amanda Tweety at Giddy up Acres, just five minutes from home. Amanda listened to Natasha’s challenges and designed a program for her, starting with a “confidence-boosting” horse named Roy. “He was a fairly lazy fellow,” says Natasha, “but he helped me get my mind wrapped around the art of posting and we practiced some techniques from times gone by.
Natasha progressed fairly quickly to TBone, a faster and more challenging horse. “Some days my poor position and moving body confuse him and frustrate me,” says Natasha, “and when I get off him, I have legs that are like jello and I can barely walk. But that is only some days.”
“It’s very much a mental and physical activity and a sweat fest most days,” says Natasha. “For anyone that’s never ridden, and I don’t mean a trail ride where you just sit back and let the horse take you along, but English-style riding, it is most definitely hard work. Posting has you constantly raising and lowering yourself in the saddle – along with all the other bits, like keeping your legs in position, watching where you’re going, keeping the reins in hand and staying upright in the saddle.”
After six months of weekly, 30-minute lessons, Natasha says there is no doubt that therapeutic riding has been beneficial to her both mentally and physically. “It’s also clear to me that Amanda is part of my care team,” says Natasha. “She may not have a medical background, but she knows why I am there, cares that I get the benefits I require, and adjusts my lessons accordingly.
“I love the horses and they make me feel peaceful and comforted and give me a little fun while I get a good physical workout.”