The value of
By Kebbie Cannon
The day I learned I had chronic
fatigue and immune dysfunction syndrome (CFIDS),
I really got a "double whammy." I was told I also had cerebral palsy (CP) since birth. It took a while
for all this to sink in, but eventually I experienced profound relief that I had a name for my symptoms.
the onset of CFIDS, I had reached the conclusion that my life as a hunter/jumper rider (one who rides
horses over fences) was over. One particular prob-lem I have due to my CFIDS is neurally mediated hypotension,
a condition in which the blood pressure falls when it should rise. This causes vertigo. Naturally, approaching
a jump when Iím dizzy results in acute feelings of fear. It only takes a few jumps for my horse to feel
my fear, which ruins its confidence in jumping as well. I had never claimed to have a disability before,
but now, with the myriad of CFIDS symptoms racking my body, I decided to pursue therapeutic horsemanship,
horseback riding that helps mentally and physically challenged individuals improve their quality of life.
I began to participate in "disabled competitions," and began the long journey into the dressage world.
Dressage aims to perfect the connection between horse and rider so that they work in harmony to
perform intricate patterns in the ring. A big job when you bump into walls just trying to make it to the
bathroom. But, as I soon learned, that is precisely why dressage is used in therapeutic horsemanship for
sufferers of multiple sclerosis (MS), individuals with head trauma, para-plegics and amputees. The horse
acts as a "biofeedback machine," weaving like a drunken sailor when youíre unsteady and performing dazzling
feats of brilliant "hoofwork" on the rare occasions when you are feeling well and have good balance.
entered my first disabled competition in Atlanta in July of 1997 after questioning American Competition
Opportunities for Riders with Disabilities (ACORD) President Judy Sery-Nagy about accepting a CFIDS rider.
Her initial reaction was enthusiastic, and the show was very successful for me.
However, as I
pursued com-petition on the national level, the issue of grading my disability came up. In competition,
different disabilities are graded and riders assigned a grade that dictates what maneuvers they will have
to perform in competition. Certain conditions like paraplegia (when an individual is paralyzed from the
waist down) are easy to classify as to the grade of disability. MS is their hardest disability to grade
and at present they donít even try to grade CFIDS.
It seems unfair, but the con-tention is that
between "crashes" I function normally, just like an asthmatic or epileptic person functions normally between
bouts of asthma or seizures. I donít agree with this analogy, but until CFIDS is better understood and
objective tests are developed, itís a battle I donít want to fight. My CP keeps me qualified for disabled
In 1998, I again went to Atlanta, this time attempting to qualify for Team USA for
the World Disabled Riders Dressage Championships. I brought brochures about CFIDS to help educate people
attending the event about my illness. I made many friends and talked to more than a dozen people about
In addition to giving
me a forum to educate others about CFIDS, therapeutic horsemanship has given me
a way to safely compete in the sport again. And my self-esteem has skyrocketed
as a result. Here are some of the plusses to disabled competitions as opposed to
These competitions have been a godsend for me. A few years ago, as I was surfing through
I discovered what might be the medical reason why horseback riding helps my CFIDS. Several studies have
shown how therapeutic horsemanship "resets" the autonomic nervous system and relieves the symptoms of
MS sufferers. It makes sense, because CFIDS may be partially due to autonomic nervous system dysfunction,
that horseback riding would also help PWCs. However, it is not a cure and just hopping onto any horse
outside of a therapeutic riding center wonít necessarily help. It could actually be dangerous if the horse
is uncooperative or intolerant of your disability and you donít have an individual familiar with therapeutic
horsemanship around to assist. Lucky for me, my horse just rolls her eyes when I trip and sprawl at her
Therapeutic horsemanship may be like hydrotherapy and other alternative treatments that
help improve lymphatic and blood circulation, and I believe local programs around the country would be
receptive to working with CFIDS patients. Most centers have physical therapists also trained in horsemanship,
riding instructors and sometimes an occupational therapist on the grounds and available to help you. I
would love to see a partnership arise with a therapeutic horsemanship center to design a study to show
CFIDS, like MS, responds well to therapeutic riding. It could also help solidify any connection or similarities
between CFIDS and autonomic nervous system dysfunction.
As a personal update, I did not make the
world team, but qualifying for the Paralympic Trials got under way April 13-18 of this year in St Louis.
The top three from each grade level will make the cut. I made the top three! As for Sydney 2000, weíll
Kebbie Cannon has had CFIDS since 1987. She spends part of her time running the Strawberry Acres
horse farm in Charlotte, N.C.
Want to Ride?
If, like Kebbie, you would like to try
therapeutic horsemanship, visit the North American Riding for the Handicapped
Associationís web site at
The site includes a list (with contact information) of more than 600 NARHA riding centers across the United
States that can help you get started.