“Riding takes my physical therapy to the next level.”
A muscle pull, for most of us, might be annoying, but certainly not catastrophic. But for Rachael Wessell of Ashburn, pulling a muscle was a crushing blow.
Wessell, who was born with cerebral palsy (CP), has high muscle tone (hypertonia), muscle spasms and stiffness, and poor muscle control, all of which can make the activities of daily living challenging or even impossible.
For her, a muscle pull was enough to derail her life. Alongside traditional physical therapy, Wessell has participated in therapeutic horseback riding since she was just four years old.
“Riding takes my physical therapy to the next level,” Wessell, now 35, says. “[The movement of the horse] gives me the sensation of walking. Because of my inability to move that way [on my own], my hips need that engagement, so they don’t tighten up.” She also uses her legs and reins to direct and steer the horse, engaging additional muscles. And the riding experience is fun, which definitely sets it apart from traditional physical therapy. Riding for Wessell is her only opportunity to feel “independent and free.”
But when she pulled a muscle, riding was suddenly painful. And while she had been riding independently for years, suddenly she needed side-walkers to control her horse. The new limitations were devastating.
But a move to a different riding program meant fresh eyes on the problem. And within ten minutes of riding at Sprout Therapeutic Riding and Educational Center, in Aldie, Wessell was once again riding off-lead and fully in control of Buggie, a flea-bitten grey horse. She described how it felt, saying she was overjoyed, grinning the whole time and thinking, “I’ve still got it!”
And the solution, well it was fairly simple, Buggie’s girth was better suited to Wessell’s physiology. Turning possible into possibilities, that's the way Brooke Waldron, founder and executive director approaches every potential barrier.
The move to Sprout not only allowed Wessell to regain her independence while on a horse, but has also enriched her life in many ways. “[Sprout] was, before the virus, about 50% of my life outside of my home,” Wessell says. She rides, she socializes with the staff and volunteers, she is an ambassador, speaking at fundraising events and, a graphic designer, she does some design work as well.
When the coronavirus shut Sprout down, Wessell saw her world close down with it. Within a few weeks, she was suffering both physically and emotionally.
Waldron and her team quickly created a host of opportunities to keep Wessell and the rest of the Sprout community motivated and connected. Every week there were motivational speakers, virtual exercise classes and, for the adults, book clubs and happy hours. There were Facetime and Zoom visits with horses, emails and social media updates with pictures and videos, quizzes and even a “quarantine classic” where clients could use any mobile device, wheelchair, etc, to complete an obstacle course and share their videos.
Wessell participated in all of the online activities, but none could replace the level of strengthening and stretching of horseback riding. “I was hurting. I was losing some ability to do daily living skills,” she told Waldron.
Undaunted by the enormous challenge of creating what riding had to offer without a horse, Brooke sprung into action. Hours later, Wessell was shocked by what she saw coming up her front walk. It was Waldron, with a large suitcase on wheels and a saddle under her arm. She explained that inside the suitcase was a bale of hay, which was to become Rachael’s pandemic horse, or, as Wessell refers to it, her “hay horse.”
Wessell admits to being skeptical. Would it be scratchy? Would it work? Would it be fun? But she trusted Brooke and with help, she gamely mounted her newly saddled “horse,” which is a similar width to Buggie. And, happily, the suitcase-like container, kept the scratchiness at bay. "I was stuck inside," says Wesell, "But Brooke brought Sprout to me."
Wessell, who has recently returned to the barn, had regular virtual lessons using Facetime, with Waldron on Buggie and Wessell seeing the view from the rider perspective, as she mimicked the leg, arm, hand movements from her hay horse.
While it wasn't as good as being able to spend time on Buggie, everything Waldron did helped to keep Wessell engaged with the world outside of her home and helped maintain much of that all-important muscle strength. “Brooke takes me through a regular lesson. [and it’s like I’m] transported to the barn. Sometimes I steer and she mirrors me, sometimes she drives.“
While thrilled to be back on Buggie, Wessell is clear that without those virtual lessons, she would be much worse off physically. And she really appreciates Walden’s creative problem solving, which holds no bounds.
“I need all that adaptive equipment, so that I can gallop off into the sunset on Buggie.”