Ann Romney says a 2,500-year-old therapy “saved my life” after she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1998. New studies show that the treatment she’s using—therapeutic horseback riding—really does have some remarkable benefits to rein in symptoms of MS and other debilitating diseases.
"I was very, very weak and very much worried about my life, thinking I was going to be in a wheelchair as well," the wife of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney stated on Good Morning America. "After I turned to horses, my life has been dramatically different. They gave me the energy, the passion to get out of bed when I was so sick that I didn't think I'd ever want to get out of bed."
In late 1998, Romney’s symptoms—including extreme fatigue and numbness in her right leg—were so severe that she couldn’t get out of bed. She was hospitalized and treated with IV steroids intended to halt the progression of multiple sclerosis, a chronic, unpredictable autoimmune disease affecting the brain and spinal cord.
Up to three times more common in women than men, MS affects about 400,000 Americans and can cause blurred vision, loss of balance, slurred speech, tremors, extreme fatigue, brain fog, blindness and paralysis. While it can occur at any age, most people with MS are diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 50, reports the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. About 66 percent of people with MS can walk, but some need a cane or crutches or use a wheelchair or scooter at times.
After six months of treatment with steroids, Romney switched to alternative therapies, including acupuncture and equine therapy. “I really felt that I was on the fast track to being incapacitated for the rest of my life, so I thought, what do I really want to do that I haven't done in my life?” she told Dressage Today. “And I remembered my love of horses."
When Romney first started riding, she was so ill that she actually had to crawl out of bed for her lessons. And she could only stay on a horse for a few minutes before she was exhausted. But she quickly began to notice health benefits.
“Riding is truly medicine for me,” she told Dressage Today. “I'd sit on a horse and forget I was even sick. I became so joyful and exhilarated that it brought my emotional state to another place, and physically, it got me moving and got my system charged. I'd feel wonderful for several hours afterward. Then I'd have to pull myself out of bed again the next day.
Also known as “hippotherapy,” horseback riding was first used as a therapy around 500 BC, to help soldiers recover from battle injuries. It was also used to rehabilitate wounded British veterans after World War I, and was introduced in the U.S. in 1969. There are now more than 600 accredited riding centers around this country.
Hippotherapy is now used for a wide range of disorders, including MS, autism, cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injury and stroke. Typically a therapist controls the horse during the sessions. The movements of the rider’s hips help improve limberness and tone in the legs and strength the core, while mastering a new skill also has psychological benefits and enhances self-esteem.
A 2010 systematic review of three earlier studies of hippotherapy for MS patients reported medically documented improvements in balance and quality of life, with the greatest benefit for those with primary progressive MS, compared to other subtypes of the disease.
A 2009 randomized clinical trial found that MS patients who participated in hippotherapy for 20 minutes, once a week, for a three-week period, showed improvements in their ability to walk, endurance and gait, compared to a group of MS patients treated with physiotherapy that didn’t involve horses.
Today, Romney doesn’t take any medication for her MS, which causes unpredictable flare-ups, including “a bit of a scare” she experienced during the presidential primaries. “What happens with me is that I start to almost lose my words,” Romney told The New York Times. I almost can’t think. I can’t get my words out. I start to stumble a little bit, and so those things were happening and I thought, ‘Uh oh, big trouble.’ ”
However, Romney quickly recovered and recently described her MS as a rain cloud that constantly hovers at a slight distance—a disease that can be managed, but not cured. She has also remarked that, “My desire to ride was, and is, so strong that I kept getting healthier and healthier” and that the exhilarating sport has given her both joy and a sense of purpose.
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