Back in the Saddle

Back in the Saddle

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Say Goodbye to Back Pain!

Back in the Saddle

All my life I wanted a horse. As a little girl, I put every dime I got into the mechanical horse at the grocery store, bouncing down make-believe trails. I counted the days until our annual summer visit to friends with Shetland ponies that took me for rides. Every horse book in the children’s library had my name on the checkout card. As an adult, I held onto the dream, hoping some day to ride my very own horse.

To celebrate turning fifty, I bought an Arabian mare the color of a copper penny. Vida, trained well enough for a novice rider, was perfect for me. We spent a few days getting to know each other at the small barn where I boarded her. Then I led her into the arena and, with the coaching of an instructor, saddled up and swung on. Vida stood quietly while I settled onto the saddle, with a huge smile on my face.

By the time we’d circled the arena three times, my smile had turned to a grimace. My back hurt so much I had to rein Vida in and climb off.

True, I wasn’t as young as when I’d ridden the mechanical pony. But an aching back after such a short ride? And Vida and I had only walked, not trotted or cantered. My back ached sometimes when I’d been on my feet a long time at work or after fixing dinner for company, but not like this.

I knew women in their fifties and sixties who rode. My idol was an eighty-year-old woman who got on her bicycle every morning and pedaled twenty minutes to a barn where she boarded her horse. Then she brushed and saddled her horse, and rode for half an hour. I wasn’t a sedentary person. I walked, biked, and occasionally hiked. Was horseback riding really such a demanding sport? Or was there something seriously wrong with my back?

When I returned Vida to her pasture, she extended her neck for me to stroke the white blaze that ran the length of her nose. “What am I going to do?” I asked, looking into her soft, brown eyes.

She nickered softly. I swear that nicker was “exercise” in horse talk.

I made an appointment with an osteopath who had helped me with a knee injury two years before.

“Where does it hurt?” he asked.

“My mid back and lower back.”

As he aligned me with gentle stretches, he reassured me that he felt no arthritis. An X-ray revealed no disc problems. I simply had a weak back, perhaps because all my life I’d had round shoulders and now had mild scoliosis.

“I just bought a horse and I want to ride her,” I told him. “It’s my dream.”

“Work hard,” he said as he handed me a prescription for physical therapy.

I didn’t mind working hard cleaning Vida’s stall, but back exercises sounded boring. However, I read online that a rider needs certain muscles to properly cue a horse. Furthermore, the soundness of a horse’s back is affected by the balance and posture of the rider. A weak back would not only hurt me, it would also hurt my beautiful mare. I telephoned the physical therapy office and made an appointment for their first opening.

In physical therapy I learned to make a hip bridge, lying on my back lifting my hips so they made a straight line from hips to shoulders. I did a fair imitation of a bird dog, starting on hands and knees with a neutral back and extending my right leg and left arm, then reversing sides. I lunged across the floor of the therapist’s workout room with hands on hips, alternating knees at a ninety-degree angle with my lower legs. I even did a side plank. Lying on my side, I contracted my abs and lifted my hips so there was a straight line from knees to shoulders. Sweat soaked my T-shirt. Did I want to ride this badly? I pictured myself galloping Vida across a field, wildflowers bending beneath her flying hooves. Yes, I did.

Figuring thirteen-year-old Vida could have back issues as well, I learned stretches and exercises that would help strengthen her back and we did them every time I visited the barn.

For two weeks I faithfully did my exercises. I wanted to do more than brush Vida’s mane and tail, pick her feet, and lead her around the arena. The day I arrived to ride her again, Vida lifted her head from grazing and whinnied to me. I shivered with excitement. “Hi, girlfriend,” I called as I walked toward the fence.

She ambled over and took a carrot from my hand. As I listened to her crunch, I slipped through the gate and wrapped my arms around her neck. “It’s going to be different today,” I promised.

I tacked up and climbed on, expecting to walk five laps around the arena, then cue Vida into a brisk trot. To my dismay, walking five laps was my limit. How long was I going to need to do my back exercises?

I thought of a biking friend who had injured a hip so badly in a fall that he couldn’t bike without first doing a series of stretches. He didn’t own a car and biked everywhere, which meant he did the exercises every single day. I breathed out. Would that be my fate?

I confided my struggle to a neighbor. “Yoga’s what you need to strengthen your back,” she insisted, and handed me a card for a local studio. “Alignment and core stability. Here’s where I go. The instructors are all physical therapists.”

It did sound like what I needed. I began taking weekly yoga classes and established a home practice that included locust, cobra, downward dog and plank pose. I wondered if any yoga positions were named after horses. As I lay on my yoga mat, lifting my breastbone and pulling my shoulder blades together, I pictured myself sitting tall in Vida’s saddle. I had to keep at it.

For another month I brushed Vida’s shining copper coat, and put her through a series of stretches. I lounged her, feeding the loops of line as she walked, trotted and cantered around me. I did my physical therapy exercises and yoga home practice daily. My yoga teacher remarked that I was standing straighter.

Six weeks from the day I first rode Vida, I mounted for the third time, patting her lovely arched neck and thanking her for her patience. We walked five laps each direction and trotted two laps before I grew uncomfortable. “Progress,” I told her, dismounting and hugging her neck.

Each time I rode, Vida and I went a little further. Delight consumed me every time I got back in the saddle. I knew before long we’d be exploring trails together. Thanks to strong backs — mine and hers — my dream had come true.

~ Samantha Ducloux Waltz ~

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