Horses Give me Freedom: Riding with Arthrogryposis

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Photo courtesy of Jewell Cox

BY JEWELL COX

Ever since I can remember, I’ve had the dream of owning a horse, caring for it, and competing in barrel racing. I wanted to experience the special connection humans have with horse, but people told me that having a horse isn’t realistic for someone in my situation.

I have a condition called Arthrogryposis Multiplex Congenita, a congenital joint contracture in two or more areas of the body. Basically, this means I can’t stand up without braces on my legs. I will have this condition for the rest of my life, and it affects what I am able to do with horses.

There’s more to riding a horse than just sitting on it. You have to catch the horse, tack up, and mount. These physical tasks are challenging for me.  I use a walker, leg braces and sometimes a wheelchair in order to get around. This makes it difficult to maneuver over rough terrain, let alone catch a horse. In addition, objects like walkers and wheelchairs can spook horses.

Photo courtesy of Jewell Cox

When tacking up, I don’t have the upper arm strength to lift the saddle onto the horse. If the horse lifts its head too high, I’m not able to put the bridle on it. Also, because of my arm strength, I’m not able to pull myself up onto the horse.

Riding a horse requires strong core and leg muscles. I have weaker core muscles than most people. When a horse stops its canter or trot, it throws my upper body forward. I might hit the horse on the neck with my nose. Because my legs aren’t very strong, I can’t grip the sides of the horse and give it direction.

But despite all these limitations, I wasn’t going to let my disability stop me from getting close to a horse. I had to find a way. In my small town, there’s a wonderful place that offers therapeutic riding for people with disabilities. They showed me I could ride a horse.

Photo courtesy of Jewell Cox

I wore my leg braces and held someone’s hand so I could walk across the field and reach the horse. To put the saddle on, I held one end of the saddle and another person held the other end. Together, we lifted it up. When bridling, an assistant kept the horse’s head low so I could pull the bridle up. The riding center had a ramp to help get me up beside a horse, but I still needed someone to lift me onto the horse’s back.

When I first began to ride, I had to have people walk along each side of me and someone to lead the horse. I did exercises to build my upper arm strength and additional physical therapy to build my core muscles. It might sound like a lot of work, but it is worth it. Taking my braces off and getting on a horse is freedom for me.

As I became a better rider, I wanted to be able to take the horse into a trot or a canter. This meant I had to make a few more adjustments. When riding, I use a seatbelt. I loop a nylon belt through the rings of the saddle and over my hips. The seatbelt buckles in front of my waist. I have Velco straps around my thighs that attach to a saddle seat cover that is made for barrel racing. I have trouble keeping my feet in the stirrups, so I loop a rubber band over the toe of each boot, under the stirrups, and up over my boot heels.

Photo courtesy of Jewell Cox

After overcoming the challenges of learning to ride, I wanted more than ever to have a horse of my own. When I was 15, a chestnut Tennessee Walker named Glory came into my life. She lives on a farm not far from my house. With the help of my family, I visit and ride her every week. Our special connection is growing. At first, she was skittish, but after a year together Glory is learning to respond to my voice and hand commands. She listens when I use the reins to direct her where to go. My skills as a rider have improved and physically, I have better balance and a stronger core.

Glory is like a best friend. She’s a good listener. She cheers me up when I’m feeling down or have had a hard day. Every time I ride Glory is like a celebration. I am happy, and I am free. I feel like I’m soaring high on wings like eagles. My new dream is to have more horses and a barn on my property. Some people might say that’s not realistic, but I know nothing is impossible.

Jewell Cox is a sixteen-year-old junior in high school. She has been diagnosed with Arthrogyposis Multiplex Congenita. She finds joy and freedom every time she gets on the back of the horse, and gives God all the glory for creating them.

Brought to you by Summit Joint Performance

Summit Joint Performance helps your horse feel and perform their very best. Whether your horse has an existing joint condition or you’d like to prevent problems in the future, our proprietary formulation of chondroitin sulfate promotes a healthy, thick synovial fluid, decreasing inflammation in the joints and improving the cushioning properties of the cartilage pads. This helps prevent the risk of early-onset joint pain and keep our partners feeling younger and staying competitive longer. By giving a single IM (intramuscular) injection of Summit Joint Performance® each month, we can help protect the joints that are being damaged by the activities that we (and they) love.