Probably the most significant thing I can pass on is my experiences riding my horses after the stroke and the good it did me. There is more about horses later in this article.
It took me over a year before walking unassisted and even then it was crash-city. I had always been very athletic prior to the stroke with excellent coordination from playing sports and running. After the stroke I did a lot of physical therapy strengthening the major muscle groups in my legs and bouncing on a balance ball. This was very painful and nauseating to say the least. One of my all time favorite exercises was hanging my cane on a shopping cart and pushing it around in stores among all the dreaded, rude, stressed out people for prolonged periods.
At first, I thought my long-term prognosis was pretty dismal but stayed determined and grew more callus despite the depression. A good day used to be only one major crash, whereas, a bad day was........ many. I soon learned that the quicker you get to the ground with your whole body the better you spread the impact. I even wore knee and elbow pads for a while because I knew I was going to hit the ground. A sense of humor is demanded. The book on balance mentioned in April is great and must reading. I never sustained any serious injuries, just lots of pain and loss of pride....knock on wood....because even after 14 years I still take a good header when I least expect it. In the winter time on ice I still use a cane and whenever the footing is bad or when I am in places that are wide open and unfamiliar.
I walk unassisted primarily out of sheer determination....and by no means because my balance is appropriate for the things I try to do. My left foot is still a problem. I improved noticeably for over five years and even now, the changes, although nearly imperceptible (and maybe my imagination), are still occurring as the muscle memory is re-acquired, learned or just comes back. Healing is a slow process.....be patient with yourself. Only the people that know me very, very well (and, myself of course) can tell there is any impairment. I still can't run which I really miss. I could never pass a drunk driving test if stopped by the police. I do carry a stroke survivor card.
I grew up riding horses and was determined to continue after the stroke. My kids started boosting me up on my horse from a wheelchair within 3 months after coming home from the hospital. At first, I had to hang on with both hands and trust my horse to stay under me so I didn't fall off. Horses are good at doing that when they have been ridden a lot. They instinctually know how to keep you in balance even when you are out of sorts. They can help you regain that lost "balance memory". When you ride a horse you also have to stay in the "now"....you can't get sidetracked or lose your concentration for a moment...you have to stay present.... in the "now".... at all times and concentrate solely on staying aboard and in balance. This "now" thing is the same for walking....and can't be take for granted.
When riding a horse you must use both feet simultaneously and alternately...one foot can compensate for the other if necessary. You must use both legs in a similar manner as well as your arms even when hanging onto the horn when your reflexes in your legs have screwed up. Moreover, your whole body stem, from the bottom side of your butt to the top of your head is exercised forward, sideways and around in a 360 degree "rhythmic motion".....unique....only to riding a horse. This experience is called hippotherapy...an aspect of riding horses I didn't know much about until being injured. It heals not only the body but the mind and is forgiving when you make a mistake.
I initially got to where I could ride unassisted (even compete again) before I could walk unassisted. I'm certain that my ability to walk unassisted was greatly accelerated by the hippotherapy. I'm not talking just a little riding but a lot!!!! My horses saved my life to say the least...they gave me back a life that I am able to "cope" with emotionally as well as gaining an ever "wary sense" of........being normal...... an illusion perhaps, for any stroke survivor. Presently, I ride mostly to keep myself in the "now" and feel good.
There is much written on the values of hippotherapy for many ailments and particularly neurological problems. Hippotherapy riding centers are found in every region of the US and are often covered by insurance. Any stroke survivor that thinks they want to walk again would be well advised to give it a try.
Tom had a stroke 14 years ago. It was a severe cerebellum bleed that wiped his balance out completely. He was 48 then and 61 now.
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