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A Horse’s Healing Influence

She learned a lesson in trust from a wild horse and saw her marriage restored in the process.

Cheryle McConnaughey with her husband, Rick

Pistol waits for me by the gate outside her stable. What took you so long? I can almost hear her thinking. It’s one of those mornings when the pain in my back, legs and arms makes me not want to even move. She nudges at my front pocket, at the peppermint puffs I’ve brought, her favorite treat. Practically my whole life, I’ve lived to be riding a horse. After the accident, the thought of never again knowing that feeling, that oneness, nearly killed me. I had lost so much: my job, my marriage. I had no idea then that it would be a horse who’d save me.

It started with such a small thing. In March 2003, getting out of my car on my way to work as an administrative assistant for the New York State Police, I’d slipped on ice, fracturing my left elbow. I had surgery and went on short-term disability for eight weeks while trying to care for three kids—ages 10, 8 and 7—as a single mom with one good arm. But what was the hardest was not being able to ride. I still owned the horse I’d bought when I was 12 years old, Reba. Ashlynne, my youngest, was learning to ride him with confidence. I loved sharing that bond. My cast came off and I went riding that very afternoon. I thought my troubles were over.

Two years later, I was driving and rested my left arm against the door. My hand went numb. I shook it to get the feeling back. Nothing. A week went by with no improvement. I went to a neurologist.

“Has this arm ever had some kind of trauma?” he asked. It took me a second to even remember the fall. “You’ve had nerve damage,” the doctor said. “Surgery should correct it. You won’t even miss a beat.”

Perfect, I thought. But the night after the operation, I woke, my arm throbbing. I took ibuprofen and spent the rest of the night tossing and turning. By the next morning, my fingers were swollen and turning blue.

Panicked, I called the surgical clinic. “Be patient,” the nurse said. “It shouldn’t last more than a couple days.” Within a week, my arm felt as if it were on fire. Finally, I told the guy I was dating, Scott. He said, “You should see another doctor.” He took me to a surgeon at one of the country’s top orthopedic hospitals.

“Will I need to have another surgery?” I asked.

“That wouldn’t help,” the surgeon said. “You have a condition called reflex sympathetic dystrophy, or RSD. Your nervous system is malfunctioning, which triggers pain signals and creates inflammation. The condition likely started with your original injury and then was aggravated by your surgery. There’s no cure. The most important thing is to stay active. If you don’t, your limbs can atrophy and require amputation.”

I tried to make sense of what the surgeon was saying. The thought I latched onto was: What about riding? I needed to have full use of my arms and legs, to be on my horse, not be distracted by pain.

Within days, the pain spread throughout my body. Even the slightest touch—from clothing or bedding—made me want to scream. I couldn’t shower. The force of the water was like a million pins stabbing me. Pinching my skin hard, digging my nails into my legs actually gave me a kind of relief, refocusing my mind from one kind of pain to another.

“Don’t, Mommy!” my kids would yell whenever they saw me doing it. It was horrible. I couldn’t hug the kids or do much to care for them. I felt worthless. They pitched in where they could. Ashlynne took over grooming Reba and her horse, Snoopy. Sometimes, I went with her. But one look at Reba’s big dark eyes, and the sadness would well up inside me. I’d always held fast to my faith. Was this pain my reward? God, how could you do this to me?

I went to a pain specialist. He prescribed opioid narcotics. They barely put a dent in the pain. But at least I could sleep. I didn’t take them until the kids got off to school, then spent the day in bed in a stupor. I quit my job and went on disability.

Through it all, Scott was there for me. “We’ll get through this,” he’d say. In 2007, when he asked me to marry him, I was so grateful that I’d never be alone. At our wedding, I managed to ride Reba, 28 years old at that point, sitting sidesaddle in my white dress, to where Scott and the minister waited.

Once we were married, Scott was different. He grew more demanding, less supportive. I felt trapped. In my house. In my body. In my marriage, which ultimately failed. I was 39. For three long years, I’d tried everything: Pilates, massage, acupuncture, yoga, physical therapy. Nothing helped. Nothing. Finally in the spring of 2008, I underwent an experimental surgery to implant devices along my spinal cord to modulate nerve impulses and lessen the severity of the pain. The implants didn’t eliminate the pain, but they made it more manageable.

Six weeks into my recovery, I saw a notice in an RSD magazine about a 5K charity walk in New York City, a few hundred miles from where I live upstate. The farthest I’d walked in months was the 50 yards from our house to the barn. I showed Ashlynne. “Mom, this looks great!” she said. As much as the walking, I was looking forward to meeting other people with RSD. People who understood what I was going through.

Ashlynne and my older son, Tyler, went with me. I was shocked by what I saw. People in wheelchairs. Others using walkers. Is this my future? I wondered. I made it the entire distance of the walk in Central Park, wearing a leg brace and leaning on my kids. I could barely take another step. Every cell in my body ached. Yet there was also joy I hadn’t known in years. I remembered what the doctor had said about my limbs: Use them or lose them. It was true about my faith too: Use it or lose it. Only God could love me through this pain. Not a man. Not even a horse. Besides, Reba’s riding days were behind him.

Lord, if I could just get off the meds, I prayed. I wanted my life back. I demanded my life back. In July, I made a roaring fire and tossed my pill bottles into the flames. By morning, I was in agony. I spent hours in the fetal position, willing my limbs to move. That became my morning routine, literally embracing the hurt, praying, meditating.

I heard about an autumn charity trail ride a local stable was putting on. Did I dare? Did I? The pace would be slow, but still…if I fell, especially with my recent operation, it would be a disaster. I remembered the vow I’d made in Central Park. A choice between faith and fear. I could do this!

Ashlynne and I went together. The horse I borrowed wanted nothing to do with me, and the feeling was mutual. Ahead of me, I saw a quarter horse, as shiny as a new copper penny, a young girl atop her. This horse was so gentle, her every step sure-footed, almost gliding. When the horse in front of her started acting out and kicking every horse around, the quarter horse calmly separated from the others, keeping the girl safe. I couldn’t take my eyes off that horse. I began to relax. Before I knew it, the ride was over.

I hobbled over to a cowboy, one of the trail ride organizers, as he helped the girl dismount. “That’s a beautiful horse,” I said.

“Her name’s Pistol,” he said. “We were training her for rodeo work, but then she injured her shoulder. She’s for sale if you’re interested.”

Injured? I stared into her big dark eyes. I’d already spent so much money on my surgery, but my family and I lived simply and the car was paid off. “I’d like to take her for a ride,” I said. A few quick circles around the stable and I was convinced. “I’ll take her.”

A few days later, she was in the stall next to Snoopy, my daughter’s horse. That morning, I’d spent curled up in agony. But I couldn’t wait to ride Pistol. Ashlynne helped me lift the saddle and cinch it. I put on the bridle, sliding the bit into Pistol’s mouth, as natural as could be. Already my legs, my arms burned. I slid my boot into the stirrup and winced. I swung my braced leg over her with a gasp of pain.

I steadied myself, the reins loose in my hand, then gently clicked my heels against her side. Pistol moved forward, slowly at first, then gaining speed, almost at a trot. I squeezed my legs tighter against her, bracing myself for the spasm of…

No pain. There was no pain! Not in my shoulders. Not in my arms. Nothing. All I felt was joy. And freedom. Freedom from pain. Freedom from fear. A freedom I’d longed for. On my own I couldn’t get there. But Pistol knew the way. As if she were guided. RSD would no longer control me.

It’s been 10 years now since Pistol came into my life and a lot has happened. My kids are grown, and Reba passed on. Nowadays it’s mostly Pistol and me. I work with her every day. The time we spend together never fails to comfort me, even when I’m not feeling up to riding her. Most likely, I will live with pain for the rest of my life. God didn’t give me pain. He didn’t take my pain away. Yet God is with me in the pain. He knew a gentle steed named Pistol would carry me out of despair.

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