Shot through both legs, with a bullet lodged in the bottom of her femur, Alaska guide Amber-Lee Dibble was told she would never go horseback riding again. Two months later, she was back in the saddle. Bob Foster General Manager of Lone Mountain Ranch has had experience riding with broken bones. He fell and broke his hip at the femoral neck after landing on a rock. After his recovery, he also returned to horseback riding. And then there is Bayard Fox of Bitterroot Ranch. Fox underwent a total hip replacement about 25 years ago, yet he still enjoys horseback riding today at the age of 83.
Therapeutic horseback riding
Horses are good therapy in more ways than one. Therapy horses are used for riders who suffer from Parkinson’s Disease, as well as autistic people. Ann Romney considers horseback riding a temporary vacation from her Multiple Sclerosis. Any equestrian will tell you that horseback riding helps with balance and strengthening muscles that you didn’t even know you had.
I recently underwent total hip replacement of my left hip and am anxious to return to horseback riding during my travels. With that in mind, I spoke to a physical therapist, as well as several equestrians who have prior experience with hip or joint replacement and horseback riding.
Horseback riding after joint replacement
Tod Mountain Ranch, located in British Columbia, Canada has had several guests with special needs over the past few years, and while they don’t consider themselves specialists or experts in this area, they have been able to provide great experiences for special needs horseback riders.
“Our approach is really simple,” said Tracey O’Connel, owner of Tod Mountain Ranch. “We talk to the individual about what they can and can’t do and then work with them to give the extra assistance needed, usually in mounting and dismounting. This varies with each individual depending on their mobility and also their confidence in their new joints. We have had some very creative methods of mounting and dismounting without any mishaps.
Because they are a small ranch with only a handful of riders each day, Tod Mountain Ranch is able to give individuals with special needs the time and attention necessary for an enjoyable horseback riding experience. One of the things O’Connel noticed was that some of the ‘special needs’ riders were a little embarrassed about the need for extra help; particularly the more accomplished equestrians. “They were concerned about holding everyone up,” remarked O’Connel. “We take the time needed to get them on or off their horse without making much fuss.”
Bayard Fox on riding with a hip replacement
“I think that since I have had this problem of a serious handicap myself, I am very tolerant and understanding of the problems others have with their handicaps,” said Fox. “Perhaps partly on account of my disability the rest of my family is tolerant too.”
Bitterroot Ranch can certainly accommodate riders with special needs, unless they are very severe. The Wyoming-based dude ranch has 130 horses under saddle for an average 25 guests and are careful to assign horses according to the ability of the rider. They also split up the horseback riding groups according to the ability of riders and usually have five different groups going out. This allows the ranch to give guests considerable personal attention.
People who have recently had a joint replacement for instance may need to go in a slower group for a time as they regain strength and confidence. “This is easy to accommodate, ” notes Fox. “But I do not see why they can’t usually be treated like normal clients. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses; fears and dreams.”
The guest ranch always uses mounting blocks on leaving the ranch and wranglers can help riders who have to dismount on the course of a ride to find a log or rock to use as a natural mounting block. What other special attention would you need?
Exercise and horseback riding
Obviously it is important to keep the muscles in as good shape as possible. Fox did lots of biking on a stationary bike and later on a mountain bike. He also did other exercises for his legs and sometimes added weights. One very important thing which is sometimes overlooked is keeping body weight to a minimum to reduce joint stress and improve agility.
Lone Mountain Ranch General Manager Bob Foster has been in the dude ranch business for 50 years. He can’t think of any ranches that specialize in horseback riding vacations for people who have had joint replacement surgery but he has first-hand experience with a broken hip. “Most people do not warm up and stretch before they get on a horse,” noted Foster. “I find stretching to be helpful before horseback riding.”
Matching horse to riding ability
As with all dude ranches and horseback riding programs, the key is matching riding ability, confidence and personality with the proper horse. For an experienced rider with special needs, this is even more important. Getting the balance right in choosing a horse that will give the rider a great horseback riding experience, while also standing still for longer periods of time and tolerating unusual maneuvers from their rider while mounting and dismounting is critical and takes a little more effort.
Where to go horseback riding
Jenny Schroeder of Mexico’s Rancho Las Cascadas says, “we do not specialize in therapy for hip or knee replacements, however, we do offer a horseback riding program that is geared toward these types of clients.” Their program is the “A La Carte” riding program, which basically means this is a custom tailored horseback riding holiday.
The Ranch at Rock Creek in Philipsburg, Montana is able to accommodate equestrians of all skill and riding ability levels, including those with special needs. Barn Manager, Val Darlington, is a special needs rider herself and is very experienced in working with riders who have undergone joint replacement surgeries. Darlington encourages private lessons, either in the arena or on trail rides to give them the one-on-one attention they require.
There are many Dude Ranches that cater to horseback riders with special needs. “That is really what a dude ranch does,” according to Executive Director Colleen Hodson of the Dude Ranchers Association. “It caters to the guests specific needs.”
How about you? What are your special needs for your horseback riding vacation? I hope I have provided you with some information on what to expect after hip replacement surgery and where to go on a therapeutic horseback riding holiday.
Thanks to Gene Kilgore of Ranchweb and Jody Dahl of Top 50 Ranches for getting me in touch with Dude Ranch members for this hip replacement article.