When training a horse, developing and strengthening their muscles correctly and evenly is a core concept, but how often do we think about that with our own bodies?
Abby Rigert has had physical symmetry at the front of her mind with every step she takes for as long as she can remember. At 18 months, her parents noticed she was walking on her toe on her right side, and she was diagnosed with right hemiparesis cerebral palsy.
A stroke in-utero due to lack of oxygen during delivery was likely the cause of Rigert’s CP, and while it’s one of the more mild cases her doctor has seen, Rigert has endured surgeries and extensive physical therapy in order to be able to walk, and ride, evenly.
“Without horses, I don’t think that my condition would be as good as it is today,” Rigert said. “I definitely think they help me both physically and mentally. Being around horses my whole life, I think it’s a place I can go and kind of almost escape from feeling like I’m different. The people I’ve been around horseback riding have been super supportive.”
Rigert’s parents encouraged her to participate in a variety of sports, including cheerleading, soccer and gymnastics. They tried to enroll her in therapeutic riding lessons, but their local barn didn’t have space in that program, so she started in hunter/jumper lessons instead at age 6. She immediately loved it, and riding became her passion.
But learning to jump came with challenges. The right side of Rigert’s body is weaker, and putting her heel down is a near-constant struggle.
“The stroke that I had mostly affected my right leg and my right calf and heel cord, so when I walk I don’t have as much heel strike as I do on my left side,” Rigert said. “It affects me when I’m riding. I can’t get my right heel down as much as my left, but I’ve found ways to compensate for that.”
While CP is usually a non-progressive condition, physically growing causes muscles to tighten, so Rigert was constantly working on keeping her right side as loose as possible. Her doctors used serial casting—a process of progressive plaster casts that allowed her to walk but kept her heel stretched—and ankle-foot orthosis braces to stretch her leg.
“It affects me every day,” said Rigert, 18. “It’s not extremely noticeable, but you can tell if you’re looking. I went to a small elementary school, so everyone kind of knew what was going on, and they were as supportive as little kids can be. There were times where it was hard seeing a lot of my friends in gym class. I couldn’t do a lot of the things the other kids were doing.”
In eighth grade, Rigert had her first surgery, a gastrocnemius lengthening, which helped lengthen her calf muscle. She couldn’t ride for months after the surgery, focusing instead on her rehabilitation exercises.
The surgery improved her walking, but when she returned to riding, Rigert still struggled to keep her right heel down.
“While jumping, my foot would oftentimes come completely out of the stirrup,” she said. “I had hit a physical limit. I could not jump much higher than crossrails consisting of a few jumps per course without losing control of my right leg. I started to get frustrated with every lesson.”
Rigert, Winfield, Illinois, was also in the process of buying her first horse after leasing for many years, so when she found one she liked that had a dressage background, she decided to change disciplines.
“It got hard for me to see my peers around me progressing at such a faster rate than me with jumping,” said Rigert. “I was able to tell myself, ‘Keep your heels down!’ but my body couldn’t physically do it.”
As she continued growing, her right leg tightened again, so Rigert had a second surgery when she was 17 to lengthen her Achilles tendon, followed by more time off from riding while she did the rehab. Rigert visited the barn as much as she could, and she found herself still longing to jump, so she turned to the internet to research what others in her position had done.
While browsing Instagram, Rigert came across a New Zealand para-equestrian, Maija Vance, a former jockey who was told she’d never walk again after a racing fall. Vance was not only competing on horseback, but she was also walking and even climbing mountains, despite crushing her spinal cord in the accident.
Rigert was curious how Vance could keep her heels down in the stirrups, so she messaged her. Vance responded that she wrapped basic half-inch thick rubber bands around her foot and the stirrup.
“This new adaptation ended up being the exact thing I had been looking for the past 10 years,” said Rigert. “All I had to do was take the rubber band, place it on my foot, cross it under and around the stirrup iron, back onto the top of my boot, and my foot was now stable. I could finally focus on other things while riding, rather than constantly attempting to readjust my weak leg back into the iron.”
She started showing on the local circuit, and she realized that U.S. Equestrian Federation shows were now within her reach, so she began riding with Janet and Ryan Sassmannshausen at Kinvarra Farm in St. Charles, Illinois.
“They’ve really instilled in me that yes, I have a limitation, but I can really do anything that I set my mind to,” Rigert said. “Being around horses has really showed me that.”
Rigert is now looking to lease a new horse so she can achieve her goal of showing in rated competition. USEF officials have granted her a dispensation for her rubber band device so she can show with it.
A senior in high school, Rigert hopes to go to the University of Kentucky next year to study business or psychology. She continues her stretching and physical therapy as needed, and another surgery to lengthen her Achilles tendon more is an option if necessary.
Rigert hopes she can serve as an inspiration to those dealing with physical disabilities.
“I was given this lifelong setback, and I decided to continue to ride and make the best out of my situation, and I hope that those struggling with either a mental or physical setback read this knowing that they really can do it if they put their mind to it,” she said. “I may never have my right heel down while I’m riding, but I haven’t let it stop me from doing what I love most.”