"Now go ahead and relax your hands." That might have been a simple request had I not been atop Dazzle, a milk chocolate brown quarter horse traveling along at a steady trot. Every step Dazzle took sent me bobbing straight up, uncontrollably might I add. I just recently took up equestrian lessons and my balance and control is still lacking. I fatigue easily in the saddle and find that keeping myself stable is a challenge.
My uncontrolled buoyancy certainly isn't Dazzle's fault. She's a stellar horse - as is evidenced in her name - but my riding skills are less than dazzling, at least at this point in my equestrian training. With my light weight, shaky balance and newbie status behind the reigns, I'm like a popcorn kernel in an air popper. Every galloping trot sends me shooting straight for the ceiling of the cavernous arena.
As a result of my instability my hands tend to clench the reigns. In an attempt to remain in control of Dazzle and aid in my own balance I grip the leather bands with too much force. The result hasn't achieved either aim. The reigns are still too taut to keep adequate control over the steering and directing of Dazzle and my balance has remained unchanged.
As I trotted along in the arena with my hands in a death grip around the reigns and my little legs fighting to keep steady around my saddle I heard the words of my trainer instructing me to relax my hands. In that moment the directive seemed impossible. How could I relax my hands with all of this bouncing taking place? If I relaxed my hands I feared I would fall off the horse at worst or at best end up straight atop her neck reaching for the long locks of her golden mane. But I wanted to heed the command of my instructor so I thought about my hands. With deliberate effort I breathed relief into my knuckles and purposeful relaxation into my palms. I let my grip loosen and when I did something remarkable happened. My body began to sink into the trot. Muscles I didn't know were clenched released. My focus suddenly switched from balance to rhythm.
With my hands relaxed I was still going up and down but I had a new level of confidence in the saddle. I stopped focusing on balance and stability. Instead of fighting against the bouncing I started learning how to match it. I stopped trying to control the movement and started unifying with it instead.
And then it dawned on me. That is why equestrian training is so good for MS. That is why people with MS take to horses like a fish to water. We have already had to learn how to work in harmony with ups and downs. We have had to learn through relapses and remissions the agony of bouncing out of control and instead of falling off and getting trampled, we've learned to stay upright. Those of us with MS who refuse to get out of the saddle have had to learn through trial and error, success and failure the art of moving in unity with our chronic illness. Through the sorrow of remitting symptoms we've learned that we can't make the progression cease but we can learn to travel with it without letting it defeat us.
Staying upright in the MS saddle takes more than relaxed hands and the right shoes, it takes a relaxed heart and the right spirit. If there is one thing I've learned from my six years of chronic illness and two years of diagnosed MS it is that I can't control the course of my health. I can only choose to match its rhythm and learn to ride comfortably on the journey. A firmer, harder grip on the reigns won't help my heart or change the course of my condition. Fretting about the next relapse, the next fall into the mysterious world of unexplained symptoms, won't protect me from an attack of lesions on the brain and spine. The only control I have over my disease is how I respond to it and how I relax into it.
I'm sure when my trainer called out to relax my hands she had no idea what she was really asking me to do. She was asking me, reminding me, commanding me, to relax my heart of its grip on my health. Let MS take me on its ride and let my body match its pace - steady or not. Bounce up and down with all of the grace of a seasoned equestrian. My trainer was reminding me that God is going to allow movement in my life that I can't and shouldn't control. To try and clench the reigns won't help. Only relaxing, releasing and resting my heart in His hands will I remain stable and upright in the saddle of life. By trusting in the perfect rhythm of God's dazzling design I can and will enjoy this crazy, unpredictable and glorious MS ride.