"Hello my name is Victoria Friend. I would like to share with you the story of how Multiple Sclerosis stole my life and how Equest Therapeutic Equestrian Center helped to give it back.
"I sit here today in a wheelchair, but my life was not always this way. Before my diagnosis I had a husband, was on the way to a career in my chosen profession, was happily anticipating having a family someday and was in full control of my body, and I thought, my life. As this disease began to rob me, I lost the sense of who I was, of where I belonged and of what I could possibly contribute. I tried to make myself little, expected little of myself and hoped that others would not expect anything of me either. Then I came to Equest Therapeutic Equestrian Center.
"I was born in Oxford, England, later moved to Oklahoma where I was raised and educated. I pursued and was awarded two degrees, the first in biology and the natural sciences and later a Graduate degree in Vocational Rehabilitation Counseling. I have worked in the fields of biomedical research, microbiology, and medical research in both qualitative and quantitative analysis as well as the most difficult of all positions, a high school science teacher.
"I met my husband while still in school, we married after a year of dating and we began to plan for our lives together. But within months of marriage, I was diagnosed with MS. When our son was only two and a half years old, the stress of dealing with my illness provoked my husband to seek a divorce and led to our mutual decision that it was best for our son to live with his father.
"In the early years of my diagnosis, my disease alternated between remitting and relapsing with each stage stealing more mobility and dexterity. Eventually I went into a 10 year remission. During this time I began to think that it had simply gone away and that the downward progression was at an end. Instead, during that 10 years, it was quietly progressing and when it came back it bulldozed me. My physical condition declined rapidly. I was robbed of the clarity of my vision, my strength, my dexterity, my ability to walk, my ability to hold myself upright, my ability to speak, as well as my ability to live alone.
"After moving to Texas to live with my parents so they could help me manage my disease and my life, my psychological state reached a new low.
"On the one hand I did recognize that I was no longer in control and that it was real, on the other I kept running away. But every time I tried to run away, the stupid thing followed me. I did not agree with this disease. I did not want to say that I had MS, I did not want to say that I could not do 'it' whatever 'it' might be. Yet in spite of refusing to surrender to the reality of this disease in my mind, I began to live in a box. I was not out in the world, I was not recognizing that I still had areas where I could contribute and still had places where I belong. I was mired in the quicksand of the unanswerable question, 'Why Me?'
"This is where I was physically and emotionally when I first came to Equest. My Dad suggested that I try their carriage driving program, and I did agree to come even though my doubts about everything, virtually everything about this idea were overwhelming.
"For those of you who don’t know what I am talking about when I make reference to equestrian therapy or to carriage driving, let me explain a bit.
"The clients at Equest are many and their needs and issues are varied. Some people, like me, come because their bodies have been negatively affected through disease, by strokes or by accidents. Some people have conditions that have affected them since birth like Down syndrome. Equest helps clients who are dealing with autism, some with comparatively mild forms and others with crippling Autism. Their newest outreach is the “Hooves for Heroes” program begun to help our returning veterans from both of these wars cope with the many and varied issues that arise once they are back in the States and need to reintegrate into society. Their Hippotherapy program uses the back of the horse as a moving platform for physical therapy.
"Regardless of the circumstance that brings a person to Equest, the center operates with an open bias that equestrian therapy can help anybody. Most clients come to participate in the riding program, where each client is mounted on the back of a horse and taught to ride. Obviously with some conditions, much adaptation is needed to achieve this and the certified, specialized equestrian therapists use their training to make it happen for each and every client. Volunteers facilitate every operation of the center.
"Some people, like me, cannot sit on the back of a horse… at least not yet! For us, Equest has begun a program where a horse is harnessed to a cart, two sets of reins are run and an able-bodied driver rides along with the client to help and to take over if necessary. The certified instructor teaches from the ground. Equest has a specially designed cart that allows two ramps to be lowered to the ground so that a wheelchair can be rolled up into the cart and driven from there. It is a big complicated operation and there was nothing about it that did not scare me in the beginning.
“I saw the rig, I saw the big scary horse, I heard what they expected me to do and I could not believe it. Don’t you know I have MS?
"I was fearful. I was afraid that I would fail. I was afraid that this would be just one more thing that I could not do. I was afraid of the horse, I was afraid of the cart, I was afraid of being moved from my motorized wheelchair, I was afraid of being rolled up into the cart, and then back down! I was afraid to trust the volunteer team with my safety.
"My instructor was a young woman named Jen. With my lack of torso strength, with my inability to project my voice and with my lack of dexterity, I thought what she was asking me to do was a joke. Don’t you know I have MS? Because I was still in a place where I was not owning my disease, I wanted to project it all on her and I did.
"But 'Mean Jen' kept demanding, 'Breathe, breathe, breathe! You can’t give a command to the horse unless you breathe!' She later explained to me that she was trying to be the person who would push you to see what you could do, but at first she was just 'Mean Jen'.
"As we worked in the inside arena, I realized that this team could load and unload me safely into the cart, I realized that the horse could be controlled and trusted and I began to work at what was being asked of me. I was actually driving the cart. But my thoughts still ran to, 'This is not easy. I should be able to do this better. Why are you so demanding? Don’t you know I have MS?'
"But at this point 'Bossy Jen' took over continuing to push me to see what I could do. I kept coming back and I kept trying, and the whole Equest team kept working alongside me to make it happen.
"I am not the same person that I was only a year and a half ago, and it is all due to my participation at Equest. They have given me back an attitude of 'can do.' I no longer think of 'what if,' but instead revel in the feeling that 'I am doing this!'
"I am doing what I never believed I could, I am using my body in a way that I thought was gone, I am doing what I thought I could not do. Physically I am regaining torso strength, I am regaining dexterity, I am regaining overall strength and the fact that I am speaking to you today illustrates that I have gotten my voice back! Emotionally, I have my hope back.
"Along with my hope I have been able to recognize that there is still a place for me in the world. I am going to church every Sunday. I am participating in a ladies’ group at church. Rather than holding myself out of things, rather than making myself little, I now want to be in the middle of it all.
"One of the last things that 'Angel Jen' told me was to 'own it.' To own my disease, to own the effects it had caused, to own the changes it had brought about and also to now own what my world can be today, just like I am.
"The holistic approach of Equest is much more than mere physical therapy or speech therapy or occupational therapy. Somehow, some way it all comes together to make something much more than the individual components. For me, Equest started the process of giving me back my life. Now I am so excited about the possibilities for the future. I have goals. I want to compete. I have a sense of how to adapt to make things possible and a recognition that this adaptation is OK.
Victoria's story appeared in Equest's 2013-14 Annual Report