BACK to Basics


I have always had a ‘bad back’ for lack of a better expression. I remember as a child my mother telling me to stand straight, shoulders back and to be honest I just couldn’t. It never did me any great harm and I managed to learn to ride starting aged ten but over the years ‘sit up’ was ringing in my ears. I had an accident about 15 years ago. I was working leading treks and a pony kicked my horse and my horse bolted under a tree, I took a branch to the neck and was bent back and the cantle of the saddle went into my back. I was xrayed and as there was no structural damage I was given anti inflammatories and sent on my way. It was an accident pure and simple and anyone who knows me knows my hatred of our compensation culture – there is no blame there, I worked with horses I hurt myself, that’s life. I had another fall off my mare where her back legs slipped as she jumped and I went head first into the ground causing a concussion and vertabrea damage in my neck which made for some interesting weeks of being fairly out of it. I found an excellent chiropractor at the time who helped greatly with my neck diagnosed a mild scoliosis in my back ( I was never checked for it in school). This went some way to explaining my one sidedness and the fact that I have always ridden with my left stirrup at least one hole longer than my right! This man went back to his native country so I did nothing until about ten years ago I couldn’t put weight onto one leg without pain and a friend dragged me down to a spinologist in Carlow. That man changed my life and got me mobile again through cranio sacral therapy and manipulation.

Two years ago I had a new problem. If I lay on my back I could not get out of bed. Often, I could not get up from standing or would feel a jarring shooting pain on my side. At my worst I went to pick up a pole off the ground and got stuck. I went to physios, osteos, massage, acupuncture anything that might help but nothing gave more than short term relief. The most successful thing I tried was actually the Equusir best box used on horses – the infrared technology somehow helped. I didn’t take painkillers much as they really didn’t help, neither did anti inflammatories. I went to a local osteo and my horse back man last year and it helped but to be honest it got to the point where I wanted some answers and long term relief so my osteo suggested an MRI. I’d switched last year from a male to female GP so I actually could talk to her about my backpain without feeling patronised. I previously had a male GP who dismissed my breathing difficulties, tried to give me anti depressants and suggested I was ‘just trying to do to much’ is there any surprise we have an obesity problem in this country when a relatively fit woman in her thirties is basically told to go home and sit on her hole and watch tv rather than deal with breathing difficulties and try to be more active? Would a man be told the same, I genuinely don’t think so by this male doctor. Ironically the specialist I demanded to be referred to at the time a few years back  showed I have severe allergies to dust, grass pollen and tree pollen and asthma due to it, they prescribed medicine and I could breathe again! I still can! Anyway my female doctor was empathetic and referred me for an MRI as well as doing blood tests. However being Irish I am terrified of bad news so I got this letter in November and it took me until march to do the MRI only with my husband nudging me along. The daily dull ache was so bad at this stage I dreaded getting out of bed as that’s when it hurt most, I was tired all the time, I hurt standing up in the cold, I couldn’t ride without feeling useless and I started to avoid activity. Every time a well meaning person said ‘just sit up’, ‘just use/ don’t use your left leg’, ‘just try harder’ ‘just have an independent hand’, ‘just move your hands less’ I wanted to get off and give up as the harder I tried the harder it was. I spent most of the weekend in Cavan worried sick at what the MRI might show. As it turned out it showed an explanation – two bulging discs causing nerve pain, some spinal column narrowing, some bony spurs and one disc with a slight tear. Not great news but worse if you are stupid enough to google it which I was. My GP recommended physio with a view to working on the MRI results so I rang a friend who teaches pilates and is a physio for some help. The one positive was the MRI provided for once that I wasn’t just being lazy, not trying hard enough, not co ordinated or exaggerating pain, theres a reason for it which mentally is a relief.


Monday two weeks ago I rode out horses with my brother in law and loved it. Tuesday, it took me an hour to get out of bed and put clothes on. The dead dull ache in my lower back and left hip just would not leave me. I was by myself and just felt really really low. I climbed and I mean literally climbed like a 90 year old onto a horse just to trot around in light seat (couldn’t do sitting up) and feel like I was alive again. By Wednesday I was FUBAR. I mean took me a few attempts to get into my jeep FUBAR. I could not lift my left leg enough to get it into the jeep but once I was in I was ok so I headed on for my first pilates session. Linda quite frankly deserves a medal. I shuffled into the studio like a zombie dragging one leg and I just wanted to cry, I felt like I was 90. It hurt to put one foot in front of another. I could not get onto the floor onto the mat without agony and when I got down I couldn’t get up. Linda managed thank god to unlock my back a little and explained to me that my entire back muscles were in ‘protective mode’ in other words complete spasm. She referred me to a physio and also to my GP for some more referrals and help. On the way home I stopped into Avoca as I had a voucher and figured I could cheer myself up buying things you would never do without a voucher – six euro crackers, yeah why not. Five euro jam, yep. Organic extortionately priced meatballs, bring it. All grand until I got to the till, picked up my bags and had to shuffle very very slowly to my car. I could not move. It took me at least twenty minutes to get into the car – I was literally a reinaction of Leo Di Caprio getting down the stairs in the Wolf of wall street or Uma Thurman trying to move her toe in Kill Bill. Yummy mummies walked past with their swishy hair and probably thought I was either drunk or some lunatic having an affluent moment. I dragged myself into the jeep by the handle, rang my gp and begged to be seen. I got there and my own gp was away so a locum saw me and freaked out thinking id been in an accident when he saw me clawing my way from the waiting room to his office. After checking four times I wasn’t experiencing numbness or pins and needles, no just excrutiating pain, he prescribed Valium and difene and gave me a letter for a surgeon.

Me getting into my car last week!

I went home that night feeling worse that I have ever felt in my life. To be honest my husband and step daughter tucking me up on the couch and feeding me medicine was the only thing that kept me going. I headed to bed and just wished for it to ease a bit. It did, a bit and I went again to Linda to worked on my muscles – I was driven there after the previous days antics. I staggered in, I walked very carefully and slowly out. I had a hot oil massage from my back man and I went to the physio Linda recommended. The horseback man incidentally remarked that I always walk on my toes and ball of my foot not my heels.  The physio, I didn’t have high hopes for but it was not what I expected at all! She took a full medical history and then did a series of resistance tests asking me to hold a leg or arm while she pushed against it. I failed most of them. She explained what miltificus muscles were (I didn’t know we had them to be honest?!) and that mine have not been working so the messages from my brain just has not been getting through to my limbs correctly. This helps explain why I am useless through my core – the muscles were not helping me at all and my back has taken the brunt. She found some weaknesses and issues in my left leg and did huge work on them as well as my left shoulder and some dry needling. I felt like a new person the next day. I was of course banned from riding by everyone but I managed to groom for a friend at a show. I found out that weekend that I was in contention for the Dressage Ireland Winter league. I’ve never ever been in contention for any DI league before! The thing is, I had to attend the final. Well feck it there’s nothing like a goal to move you is there? I did my pilates exercises three times a day, I went to my osteo, I stretched and slept and on Wednesday I climbed onto Sammy who having not been ridden in a week and a half was a saint! I had another challenge, my bit I normally use is not correct for dressage due to it’s cheekpiece (more on that in a different post) and I couldn’t source another with another cheekpiece. So I had to make do with what I had! I rode on Saturday and had what I call my ‘no shock absorber’ issue – when this happens I want to scream as I cannot relax my lower back and hips to sit deep and absorb the canter its beyond infuriating! Now that I understand it more I went and did stretching right after.


On Sunday Sammy was quite predictably – high. Now at the start of his ‘bolting isn’t the answer’ training when I got him three years ago this would have been a write off but now he tries hard to behave and actually does the movements albeit with tension. I of course was not at my best so I couldn’t always give and relax at the right time. The first test had no major issues aside from a wonky circle. The second test … when your horse loves to jump and hasn’t in two months, do not try and ride him dressage in an arena full of xc fences. He was like a train and at one point took to squealing in the warm up which is never a good omen. To be honest he could have done with a few laps of the gallops on Saturday night but my back wont hold up wot that abuse yet. We headed up to the judge and Sammy froze. He hasn’t done it in a long time but its terrifying as if I react too much he will run so I had to sit there like a lemon for a minute giving him a counselling session to get him to walk on. A was beside an XC bank which he locked on to so my entry was interesting. The massive positive was that we rode through this test without ‘doing a Sammy’ he was on a knife edge and like a train but he kept doing the movements – last year a simple change serpentine when he was in that emotional state would have been car crash! Both tests marked fairly and as expected – a bit tense, a bit tight in neck and as a result not supple and engaged enough which I would 100% agree. We still managed two fifth placings but sadly two 63% so no qualifying scores. I’d been in contention for the league but I knew those performances wouldn’t keep me ahead and much as I have a goal to win a dressage Ireland rug before I die, Helen the very worthy league winner rode a fabulous test and deserved her win and her rug! I was delighted to manage second place – I’ve never even placed in a DI league before and never imagined I would at elementary. We won a beautiful browband by Special Edition browbands which is just perfect with both bling and pearls!


I am so grateful to have been on my horse yesterday and to the people who helped me to do it. If you are not sports and competitive minded it can I understand seem silly to put yourself through it for a competition but its not about that – its not about the rosettes and the winning its about wanting more than anything to do what you love and to be good at it. I want to ride more than anything else in life and to not be able to is not something ill accept. One thing I realised recently is how good my horse is to me. I cried in frustration a few weeks ago at not being able to get a younger horse to canter right because my weight involuntarily slips left. This happens on Sammy but as I trained him he knows no better so when I ask for right walk to canter he does it no matter how badly balance I am. He leg yields with my weight on the wrong side simply because he feels my leg go back. He is a horse in a million and I think being unwell has made me appreciate him all the more.


Today I am a bit stiff but I got up early and I had my first personal training session with a man who specialises in strength, core and rehab from injury including nerve pain. Nerve pain is the most tiring and debilitating and unrelenting pain and ill do anything to avoid it and get strong. I have realised that this issue was a long time coming, months at least. I haven’t been active much in ages – I didn’t want to get up in the mornings, felt tired and stiff and cold all the time, felt cranky and slept too much and comfort ate and blamed myself for not having the energy to do more. It doesn’t just affect you physically it affects me mentally as I feel less confident in my skin and in my clothes. I spent an hour today learning more about how to use my core and doing strengthening exercises. I learned that for years I have been compensating without realising – I don’t put weight on my heels (good spot backman) and don’t open my hips and use them enough. I’ll be going back to Colin in the Performance and Fitness Academy later this week (thank you Margaret and Evin for the recommendation) and will continue this, pilates, physio, osteo and supplements. It might seem extreme but its this or back surgery and I don’t want to go down that road unless I have to. Its expensive but its worth it if it works.  I have to relearn how I move and co ordinate myself. Riding lessons will have to wait as this has to come first. I’ll share my journey because I hope it might help someone else. If you are going through pain and are not getting the help you need or want from your GP or from anyone else, don’t settle for it! Demand more, get tests, get the scans, get treatment and help and do everything you can.  On a final note, when you see anyone out on their horse and think why don’t they ‘just’ whatever, be kind, you never know how much they might be trying to!


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