What does it mean to be a para-rider? What kind of life can you have with horses, when it is difficult to even have a normal everyday life? And how much do the horses mean to a para-rider? 23-year-old Cecilia Rosell, who owns the Icelandic horse Abel, has several diagnoses. Among them the movement disorder cerebral palsy, neuromuscular scoliosis which causes pain in her neck, hip and back plus she suffers from ADHD. Despite all her challenges, Cecilia insists on having a positive attitude towards life and enjoys every minute spend with her beautiful horse.
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What is your occupation?
I work part time as a feed- and sales consultant in a feed store.
How long have you been riding horses?
I started when I was 1,5 years old at a riding school. Afterwards I began helping out daily with a horse when I was 12. In connection with this, I was riding para-dressage regular Danish Warmblood horses, until my body said stop, and in 2015 I changed my riding style to the Icelandic horse.
What diagnosis do you have that classify you as a para-rider?
All in all, I have eight diagnoses for example the movement disorder cerebral palsy, neuromuscular scoliosis, arthritis which means that in the cold winters it is difficult for me to use my fingers. I also have ADHD, hypothyroidism which causes tiredness, and I have fibromyalgia – this involves a lot of nerve pain and extreme hypermobility.
If a regular rider should try to understand what it means to be a para-rider, how would you describe it?
It depends a lot on the situation. In dressage it means that you can participate with different assistive devices at ordinary competitions, but you also have the chance to compete only against other para-riders. When you ride at Icelandic competitions there is no separate para-competitions so in these situations I ride like anyone else. However, we are working with the Icelandic organisation to open their eyes to para-riding. Hopefully we will succeed at some point.
What does your diseases and diagnosis mean for your everyday life? What do you do differently than a “healthy” person?
I have a lot of pain and my energy is low. That is why I only work part time 8 hours a week. It suits me perfectly, because then I have enough energy to ride my horse. I have to be very careful and prioritize my energy every day. It can be frustrating, but “luckily” enough I have never tried anything different. As long as I am good at economizing my energy, I live a good life – with ups and downs of course. However, if I don´t ride my horse, it is a completely different story. After three days without riding the pains become increasing severely. After 14 days I am not able to walk any longer, and I will be in a wheelchair 24/7.
What is different in your riding compared to that of a “healthy” person? Is your saddle custom-made? Can you only ride a specific amount of time?
The function in my lower legs is very reduced, so my horse responds a 100 precent on voice commands. Besides this I do have a custom-made saddle with cushions under my legs which keeps them steady. This way I don´t lose my balance too much.
On good days I do all the stable work myself except mucking out, but on bad days I get help from my sister or my mother. They fetch Abel and prepare everything so the only thing I do is ride him. Another accessory I have is magnetic stirrups that keeps my feet connected to the stirrups and during the winter, I wear clothes with electronic heat when I am in the stable.
My left side is much weaker than my right side, so I use a whip to help Abel as much as possible to understand my signals. My biggest challenge is my coordination. It is difficult for me to use my legs and support with the rains especially when I have to let go again because I get muscle spasm – therefore collected work is not always our strong side, but it gets better and better.
How come you ride an Icelandic horse?
When I rode dressage horses I could in a good week ride 2-3 times a week. Already 14 days after I got Abel, I rode 5-6 times a week. I have had him for 6 years now and my body is getting stronger and stronger.
4 main reasons I ride an Icelandic horse
1. Tölt – an extremely soft gait that means no matter how painful my body feels, I can always ride.
2. Their temperament. Of course, it depends on the horse, but in general they have lots of power, love to work and have the ability to be complete relaxed.
3. Minimum work in the stable – if they are kept in loose housing of course or spend all hours of the day in the fields, which suits the race really well. To me it´s a huge advantage, not to have to do too much stable work.
4. The competitions. The atmosphere at Icelandic horse-competitions is so special. Everyone is cheering for everyone. It is also a huge advantage that all the different classes are spoken out loud, so you do not have to remember anything. That is very important to me because I have problems with both riding and remembering a program at the same time.
What does your horse Abel mean to you?
Abel is my best friend, my freedom. When I am riding him, I am like anybody else, and that is not a feeling I have very often.
Abel has a special ability to know how I feel. If I have a bad day, he is so careful with me. If I have a good day, he can easily make more fuss.
Not many horses are like Abel – we can move forward at 30 km/h tölt and then shortly after walk with loose rains just by a simple whistle. That is really special.
How did Abel end up becoming your horse?
About eight years ago I was out riding at my aunt´s place. She is also a former para-rider in dressage, but at that time she had shifted to riding Icelandic horses. Back then, I still very much a dressage rider, but of course I had to try this Icelandic horse – I fell in love immediately! The soft gaits, the low back meaning I could tack it up myself and without a doubt their amazing temperament.
At the time I just did not want an Icelandic horse until I got older. Later I went to a boarding school and had to let go of my borrowed dressage horse. This was a complete disaster. After three months I had to give up and go home because of severe pain.
At home I visited a friend and she introduced me to this small, dark-brown hairy horse. Even though I did not want a horse, I could not stop thinking about this particular horse. I ended up riding it and fell completely in love and suddenly Abel was mine. The best thing I ever did for myself.
What kind af competitions do you ride?
I ride 4-times tölt at the moment. It is the level just below DM and VM (Danish championship and World championship). In 4-gait I ride what is called 4.2 which contains of 5 exercises: Slow tölt, trot, walk, canter and fast tölt. When I ride tölt I primarily ride T4 which is: Optional speed in tölt, slow tölt, and tölt with loose rains.
I LOVE competitions and I hope to qualify for DM one day – just to show that I can!
What do horses mean for your life in terms of your illnesses and in general?
If I don´t ride my horse for 14 days, I will be in a wheelchair full time – to avoid this I continue riding.
Besides this, riding and the time I spend in the stable also gives me much more energy in ways I cannot find anywhere else.
Riding is actually so important to me that it is part of my contract at work – I can only work a certain amount of hours, that allows me to still have energy for my horse.
Would you also describe horses as your therapy?
Horses are my freedom. When I sit on a horse, I am like everyone else. On a challenged day when I am in the stable all my bad thoughts and feelings disappear, and my body pain decreases. Of course, I have days where I don´t have much energy to go to the stable, but most days I do anyway, because I know it is good for my body and my mind.
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