There are few injuries that are as devastating as damage to the spinal cord. A broken arm or sprained ankle will put most people out of action for weeks or months, but paralysis due to a spinal cord injury can mean losing mobility and independence for years to a lifetime. The world is often unkind to individuals with any kind of disability, but the greatest unkindness of all would be to give up hope. The shock of losing so much so quickly can feel devastating, and in the aftermath of a spinal cord injury many find themselves lost and faced with insurmountable barriers to pursuing what they love.
However, life perseveres. A spinal cord injury or disorder can ravage the body and mind in unimaginable ways, but it’s not the end; it’s the start of a long hopeful journey and recovery.
In the past century, amazing developments in human medicine have helped patients regain control over their lives. Physical and occupational therapies can be powerfully effective tools for bringing back meaning, purpose and improvement to the quality of the lives of those who suffer from impaired mobility. When used effectively, therapy has the power to open doors and creates opportunities for individuals with disabilities. Inpatient physical therapists and healthcare practitioners work miracles to save what mobility and function that remains using a combination of gait training, functional electrical stimulation and physical therapy.
But the next steps, actually living after a spinal cord injury, present a more complicated problem. A human being isn’t just a moving, breathing machine; true healthy living means staying engaged, learning new skills and being productive at meaningful endeavors. This is often the biggest challenge for quadriplegic and paraplegic patients.
Today, new therapies push the boundaries of treatment from treating physical symptoms to helping a patient grow as a whole, both mentally and physically. And for some patients, the next step from gait training at a hospital might be riding on the back of a horse.
One of the emerging therapies for individuals with a wide variety of neurological disorders or physical disability is therapeutic horseback riding, which has early roots in ancient Greek medicine. Horseback therapy has been increasing in popularity and has been gaining traction as a treatment method because of the physical benefits, but also because horseback riding as an activity targets holistic health and well-being, rather than just treating the individual as a medical patient.
The sensation of riding a horse simulates physical muscles, promoting core strength, coordination and balance, as well as giving the patient a sense of autonomy and purpose. Research on horseback therapy has found that the motions of a horse’s gait provide excellent for individuals with mobility problems. Smooth riding relaxes high-toned muscles, and faster riding develops muscle tone. The technical aspects of riding also help develop fine motor control. In short, to an individual who suffers from motor impairment, horseback riding is an ideal activity for therapy.
But beyond that, horses have provided companionship to humans for centuries, and the social and emotional bonds that people form with their horses and with their instructor go a long way toward better mental health and happiness. The sensation of riding a horse releases endorphins and gives the patient a sense of emotional well-being. Horsemanship as therapy can even develop into a new passion, and an avenue for continued growth in skill and efficacy. Many patients who undergo equine-assisted therapy continue riding even beyond the scope of therapy.
For someone with any kind of neuromuscular disease or neurological disorder, the lack of mobility can be a seriously limiting aspect of life, both in terms of physical movement and as a psychological block that can affect emotional well-being. Loss of mobility often means loss of function, independence and self-esteem, and people see therapy primarily as a means of healing or recovering what was lost. But in the process of recovery, there is always the potential to discover something new: new confidence, new perspectives and new passions. Therapy can transcend itself and its goals, just as people can overcome their limitations.
Today, therapy for spinal cord injury patients includes an incredible variety of treatments that not only strengthen the body and mind, but build character and bring purpose to life. This can be through something as wild as riding a horse, or something as simple as regaining muscle tone by swimming in a therapy pool. Regardless of where someone is in life, there is always a way to move forward.
Making waves begins with making ripples.