Therapeutic center now has classes for adults with multiple sclerosis
Tue, April 8, 2003
By Christina Holder
Virgil Davis has a pair of cowboy boots to prove he is veteran rider. The tan leather is scuffed and worn at the tips. Yet it has been years since Davis has swung his legs over the back of a horse and gently nudged its belly with his boots.
About 13 years ago, Davis was found to have multiple sclerosis, a disease in which the body's immune system mistakenly attacks the central nervous system. The disease forced Davis out of the saddle - until now.
"I just miss doing it," Davis said.
Davis has begun visiting Riverwood Therapeutic Riding Center in Tobaccoville for a horseback riding class tailored for people with MS. Riverwood has been around for nearly 10 years, offering riding therapy classes, mostly for handicapped children.
This month, the center is offering its first class for adults.
The students are members of the Central North Carolina chapter of the national Multiple Sclerosis Society. They will visit the center once a week for six weeks.
"The horse can take them on trails - where their wheelchair cannot go," said Susan Hubbard, Riverwood's director and founder.
She said she wanted to open up the classes to adults with MS because she has seen other students build confidence and strength while doing exercises on the horses.
"The horse's gait mimics the human's gait," Hubbard said. This motion relaxes muscles that are often stiff and used infrequently, she said.
Horseback riding as exercise was first recorded in the 5th century B.C. by the Greek philosopher Hippocrates. It became a popular treatment among British therapists in the 1950s during the polio outbreaks. A decade later, therapists across the world developed and modified "hippotherapy," a type of physical therapy that uses the horse's movement to improve a person's sensory functions.
At Riverwood, instructors such as Laura Pallavicini use riding to teach students how to maintain balance and to build muscle tone.
"We do exercises that target all areas of the body," Pallavacini said.
Each student is accompanied by a person who walks ahead leading the horse, and up to two "side-walkers," volunteers who walk on either side for reinforcement.
Pamela Banner, who has had MS for six years, calls the session "horse-a-cizing" because it feels like a workout. As she slowly laps the arena, she waves her hands in the air as if she were on beat with an aerobics routine.
"With MS, I never thought I would get to do this," Banner said. "It allowed me to relax my muscles."
Yet it is not just physical improvements Pallavicini sees in her students. "We've had autistic children say their first words on the horse," she said.
Riding a horse builds confidence in the rider and helps him achieve a unique independence.
"That's what we strive for - as much independence as the client can handle," she said. "They don't have their walker or wheelchair with them."
Davis' wife, Tamra, has been looking forward to seeing her husband get on a horse again so he can reclaim the freedom to move that he had before MS.
Davis said that he was 3 when he learned to ride horses on his family's Winston-Salem farm.
"Before he had his license, he would get on that horse and ride all over Forsyth County," she said. "This is something he can do on his own."
The hourlong classes slip by quickly under the fluorescent lights in the arena.
Davis guides his horse past a ramp where walking canes hang on a banister and gently comes to a stop.
He will return next week to get his boots in the stirrups again - but with all of this riding, he may need a new pair soon.
• The Central North Carolina chapter of the MS Society pays for the
classes. Adults with MS who participate do not have to pay, nor must they
be members to participate. The chapter's only criterion is that the person
have MS. Those who would like to participate in the classes can call the
chapter at 759-2105.
© 2003 Winston-Salem Journal