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Proper Horse Therapy

By Judy Van Put
SULLIVAN COUNTY November 27, 2001 – Readers of Horse Talk may remember a column published this past July about Jean Pfaffenbach, of Jeffersonville, who had celebrated her 80th birthday at Stone Wall Farms, where she has spent the last 10 years of her life happily riding her horse – having just taken up the sport at the age of 70 years! Jean said she rides three times a week and spends part of every day at the barn with her horse, and it has given her so much joy at this point in her life.
Indeed, we have many reasons for spending time with our favorite equine.
Today I took a young girl on a “trail ride” through the woods and into our pastures. She has been taking lessons in the city, and was delighted to go out on horseback in the country.
She has fast developed a love for our dear old gelding “Bucky,” whom I would trust with anyone, and spent lots of time after our ride untacking and brushing him, and then just sitting on his back. She has already established a love for horses, and was eager to be helpful and do anything that needed doing around the horses and the barn.
Some enjoy horseback riding for the exercise, others for the joy of being around horses. For me, our purchase of our old mare and gelding four years ago was actually a well-appreciated form of therapy, to help me cope with the loss of my mother, who had been a hospice patient for the last couple of months of her life. And of course, years ago, the horse was the main mode of transportation.
Recently my husband was researching an old book, Outdoors at Idlewild, by N.P. Willis (published in 1855) hoping to get some interesting fishing information, when he came across this wonderful passage relating to horses. N.P. Willis was considered “invalid” – since he suffered from tuberculosis – and he writes poetically of the wonders of horseback riding or, as he called it, saddle exercise, in helping to overcome poor health. I thought that the readers of Horse Talk might find this information, from 150 years ago, of interest.
“I fear I cannot sufficiently convey to you my sense of the importance of a horse, to an invalid,” Willis wrote. “In my well-weighed opinion, ten miles a day in the saddle would cure more desperate cases (particularly of consumption), than all the changes of climate and all the medicines in the world. It is vigorous exercise without fatigue. The peculiar motion effectually prevents all irritation of cold air to the lungs, on the wintriest day. The torpid liver and other internal organs are more shaken up and vivified by the trot of a mile than by a week of feeble walking. The horse (and you should own and love him) is company enough, and not too much.
Your spirits are irresistibly enlivened by the change of movement and the control of the animal. Your sense of strength and activity (in which lies half the self-confidence as to getting well, which the doctors think so important) is plus one horse, with the difference from walking. As to pulling upon the forces of the spine and consequently upon the brain, it is recommended by the best English physicians as much the preferable exercise for men of intellectual pursuits.
And, last (I think, not least), the lungs of both body and soul are expanded by the daily consciousness of inhabiting a large space – by having a life which occupies ten miles square of the earth’s surface, rather than that ‘half mile’ which you speak of as the extent of your daily walk. The cost is trifling . . .
Cold, however, was never a trouble of mine on horseback, even with the thermometer at winter’s lowest. The sharp air may have a chance at the lungs, perhaps, in getting mounted and started; but Dr. Hall’s excellent hint to delicate persons going from a hot concert-room into the night-air – ‘keep the mouth shut, and breathe only through the nostrils’ – is an effectual guard for these two or three minutes . . . A fast and even trot – of the jolt of which, by rising in the stirrup, you take as much or as little as you please – is the best past for keeping the whole body warm . . . it both wakes up the lazy liver and lulls to rest the cough-weary lungs. Oh the blessed let-up – the soothing intermission – the merciful stop-at-last of a fast trot, after a long night with a cough unappeasable! A triple blessing, indeed – for the rested and braced invalid comes home with a well man’s appetite.”
It is interesting that even at a time when horse travel was a necessity, Nathaniel P. Willis was able to see the therapeutic value of enjoying the horse for much more than the travel – the “saddle exercise” provided a lifting of the mind and spirits that everyone who rides, from the very young to the very old, can appreciate.

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