My Back to Riding Story
(by Jenn Fessler)
At a glance, you might not think anything about this photograph is a big deal, but to me, it is. That’s me in the picture, and it was taken a few months ago.
For the last few years, physical pain kept me from being in the saddle. My situation is not uncommon among horse professionals: we try to ignore pain because we have to, and we can’t imagine how else it could be. Ever since my back surgery in 2015, whenever I would get on a horse – my place of solace throughout my whole life— my right foot would go numb and later that night when it woke back up again, I couldn’t get away from the cold, nagging pain in my lower back. Sometimes it wouldn’t wake back up and I would drive along with a numb right foot, and lift my thigh with my hands to get my dumb leg in and out of the vehicle. It had gotten scary to lead fresh horses because I couldn’t walk with any sort of agility.
Those of us who are lifelong horsemen and have done it long enough know that often little moments of joy are the only things to carry us as we look at the hard realities of this business on paper, or while we stand next to a deep hole in the ground and say goodbye. And then we are expected to always stay strong for others and help make their dreams happen. The joy of working with horses was slowly dissipating before I could breathe it in. Some days I just could not breathe, and even though I have always had challenges with asthma, the root was deeper than that. Bullying myself to push through pain was taking away the authenticity of why we work with these amazing animals in the first place.
Something had to give in order for me to manage all the spinning plates in my world and balance family life amidst the struggles of the horse business.
My practice of riding was a most precious thing to me and when I stopped, my physical pain was less, but in return I lost access to the peace riding had always given my soul. I functioned well enough, but deep down, I was adrift without the way I had always filled my own well.
Periodically I would miss it and try a short ride but it was very disappointing to feel inept because of the fact that my right leg still didn’t do what I told it to, so I had to carry a dressage whip in my right hand. Several times I tried to get back to riding fitness again but having it not work the way I remembered was unbearable. And the hurting and numbness returned every time.
My friend, Tad Coffin, with his inimitable kindness and determined impulsion, kept quietly encouraging me. He firmly believes his latest SmartRide Rx Saddle Technology helps not only horses’ backs, but riders’, too. The difference in the latest tree is an electromagnetic component of far infrared light (FIR), the healing properties of which are well documented in peer reviewed studies. Since all the horses in our program have gone in Tad’s saddles for many years and I see marked improvements in how horses I know really well go in the new TC technology, I knew it was plausible.
In his kind but persistent manner, Tad was sure I would be riding again soon. He sent me a new saddle, souped up with the latest technology, and wanted me to ride in it as a test case. So, I swallowed the lump in my throat and got on. That saddle was a turning point for me. It’s the one I’m riding in this picture.
I started back, gingerly, and for just a few minutes at a time. And while quietly walking along, I actually felt a warmth and openness in my sacrum in the place that had been cold, braced and locked. My last effective rides had been all in two-point, out of the saddle to accomplish what needed to be done, and I was really pretty guarded about sitting at first.
I will never forget the moment when I was almost back to the barn after a relaxing loop in the woods, when I realized I had actually subconsciously relaxed into sitting in the saddle. My hips had softened and I was sitting deeply and organically around my horse. And it did not hurt. And later that night I had a good sleep and experienced no numbness, just a subtle whoosh sensation not unlike like a tiny waterfall that went down my sciatic nerve and to my big toe. After that everything felt pretty normal. I wouldn’t have believed how profound it was if I had not felt it, and been continuing to feel it.
What’s even better? The horse I chose to get back to riding fitness with is our evergreen homebred mare, now 13 years old, who had suffered a career-ending injury as a 4 year old. She’s been a beautiful pasture ornament and a broodmare all this time. She wears the Thera-Tree (a separate therapeutic device Tad has created, based on the same SmartRide Rx technology as in the saddle) as much as I can get it on her and the fitter she’s getting, the more sound she’s getting. Just like me. She nickers when I come to ride her and we are having a pretty good time together. Which is how it used to be, and how it should be. I’ve worked too hard honing my skills over a lifetime of horsemanship to not get to do it myself. I’m now keenly appreciative of the little things, like getting a nice leg yield off my right leg because now it is there when I need it.
It isn’t that there aren’t days that I start out sore because I overdid something on the farm the day before, but I have come to trust that sitting in the saddle is actually therapeutic for my back. On those days I give myself permission to just have a walkabout and let the saddle work its magic. The horses have always told me that Tad is onto something good, and now I KNOW what they mean.
Within just a few months I feel like a world has opened to me again. Being able to ride without pain is a really big deal. Returning to this practice, and the routine little pleasing things that go with it, has refreshed my outlook in all directions of my life.
I hope that sharing this story will give someone the needed encouragement to ride again. Know that while we may have been on hiatus from riding, there have been vast improvements to saddle tree technology going on in Tad’s shop. I’m as guilty as anyone of just liking my same old equipment and being reluctant to change something I have used for 20 years. But I’m walking proof (riding proof!) that a change in gear may be more important than we had otherwise considered. As horsemen we would advise others to consider changing something that was no longer working to our benefit, and we should remember to listen to this advice ourselves!