Living with MS: Horse therapy for multiple sclerosis


TOANO, Va. (WAVY) — When you think of multiple sclerosis, you may think of people in wheelchairs or who have difficulty moving.

There is a unique treatment to help with those challenges, and some say the change it creates in MS patients is nothing short of miraculous.

With every stride, every movement, the horses at Dream Catchers in Toano make an important impact.

“For me I just feel better after I’ve ridden,” says Cindy Johnson.

Cindy is from Williamsburg and she has multiple sclerosis. She used to be an avid exerciser, but the disease has had a big impact on her mobility.

“Right now my left leg is … weakest part of the body that it’s affected. I have foot drop. It doesn’t lift at the hip. It’s just getting progressively weaker. So, those are symptoms, and tingling throughout the day and at night, and I get fatigued, super tired after doing something and so you have to sit.” 

Diana Journey can relate. She was diagnosed with MS in 1993.

“I woke up one morning, getting ready for work, and I had a tightness around the middle, which now we know is called the MS Hug. By the end of the week, I was numb except the right side of my face. My entire body,” says Diana. ” When I was diagnosed in ’93, for three months I was out of work. Trying to get back, and by ’96 I was in a wheelchair and that was about 10 years I was in a wheelchair, couldn’t do anything, and so gradually things started coming back and I was able to do more things.”

Both Diana and Cindy made an important decision. They refused to let their disability stop them from leading a good life, a life that involves letting go of walkers and wheelchairs, mounting a horse, and taking a life-changing ride.

Janet Mayberry Laughlin of Dream Catchers says there are many therapeutic benefits to riding, and simply being around horses.

“I love the fact that they are able to get on a horse, to feel the communication with the horse. They are able to be here on the farm first and foremost. There’s just something about being out here. It’s a beautiful place, there’s fresh air, you’re interacting with other people. I feel like having them be on horseback impacts them physically and emotionally, impacts them in ways that’s hard to measure. You can see it. You can see their legs relax once they’re up on a horse. You can see them sitting up straighter as they ride, and through their 10 or 14 week sessions, we see incredible improvements in their physical well being and their joy of being here,” says Janet.

She says the horses can exercise the bodies of these MS patients in ways regular physical therapy cannot.

“When you get on a horse, the motion of the horse walking actually mimics the motion of a human walking. So, when they’re on a horse, the motion of the horse’s body moves their pelvis in the same way that it would move when they are walking. It also requires a lot of core strength and balance to hold yourself up there. So, you’re working those muscles as you’re riding and you don’t really realize it, so you’re not doing crunches,” says Janet. “You’re not doing other exercises that you do in PT, but those core muscles are working, and you’re also able to benefit from the heat of the horse. As the horse is moving, the heat from the horse’s body transfers into their legs which then helps their leg muscles to relax.”

If you are worried about being able to physically get on a horse to ride, Janet wants you to know, “We have adaptive equipment. We can get you on a horse safely and we respect everybody’s fears and we work really hard to create a sense of confidence. Our volunteers are extremely well-trained.”

She goes on to say, “Our horses are our most wonderful partners. They are very patient. They are very well trained and they will stand long enough for us to be sure that you are able to get on a horse. We’ll take good care of you. We believe in this program.”

For MS Warriors Cindy and Diana, the change they feel when they ride (and after) is both physical and mental.

“It helps my posture. I’m very straight now,” says Diana.

“It’s very freeing because, like I said, I used to do a lot of different exercises and this just kind of something I can do, I can still do,” says Cindy.

A sense of accomplishment, support, and well being — just what the doctor ordered.

“The best thing was coming here to Dream Catchers. I just love the program and the people,” says Diana. 

There are openings if you have multiple sclerosis and want to ride at Dream Catchers. Click here for information on how you can sign up.

The program is all made possible by grant funding from the Multiple Sclerosis Foundation. Money goes to help fund the lessons and covers up to five riders (at little or no cost to the rider). Dream Catchers also has a scholarship fund to help cover the difference. Janet say the majority of riders don’t have to pay out of pocket. The program works with them on an individual basis.

It’s not too late to sign up to be a WAVY Warrior or donate to the team for Walk MS.

The walk is Sunday, April 8, at the MacArthur Center Green in Norfolk. Registration is at noon and the walk begins at 1 p.m.


Copyright 2020 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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