Let’s Get Some Shoes

“Give a girl the right pair of shoes and she can conquer the world.” Atta girl, Marilyn Monroe. My quest to find world-conquering shoes is very specific. This blog is for anyone with walking difficulty who is incessantly looking for a shoe they feel secure and comfortable in. It took a long time to figure out why some shoes were easier to walk in than others, but I finally cracked the code: zero lift shoes and shoes that snugly fit to the bottoms of my feet.

Like many people with multiple sclerosis, I have weak tibialis muscles, which makes flexing the ankle difficult (also called dorsiflexion). Ten years ago I suffered from very dramatic drop foot. It’s better now, but not completely resolved. (Drop foot is a disruption of the peroneal nerve which flexes the ankle.)  My toe flexors, which usually curl the toes and aid balance, are both weak and suffer from spasticity. My world-conquering shoes have to help me compensate for these things.

Zero lift shoes are designed so the ball of the foot and heel are level (horsey people, see note). This means the ankle lives at around 90 degrees. Shoes with a lift open this angle and necessitate more dorsiflexion during walking. A subgroup of zero lift shoes are called barefoot shoes. Devotees of this subgroup claim it is the best shoe for alignment, offers a more natural gait/heel strike, is better for balance, and reduces pain for runners. Mainstream examples of barefoot shoes are Vibram Five Fingers or Merrell’s barefoot line. They are specifically designed to balance weight across the foot. The toe box is usually big to allow ample toe wiggling. Plus they are very light weight. 

Any shoe that isn’t securely fastened to the foot relies on the flexor muscles in the foot to keep them on (i.e. flip flops). When those flexor muscles are weak, fatigue easily, or behave erratically (in the case of spasticity), the shoes are controlled more by the forces of motion than by the foot. At least two functions keep shoes on: heel cups (sometimes called heel slings) and straps or laces. 

The shoes I like best have zero or nearly-zero lift and can really be ratcheted onto my foot or have elastic that keep them in place. Laces and elastic make them easier to get on and off as my feet don’t exactly wiggle themselves into shoes very well. I’m using a loose definition of zero lift in the following list of my favorite shoes. This isn’t often listed as a feature outside of barefoot shoes. Here are my favorites:

  • Classic Converse Chuck Taylors – This one is my favorite right now and was a recent discovery. Almost the entire top of the shoe is laces so I can make them loose at the toe and tight over the top of my foot. They are remarkably lightweight.
  • Sperry Men’s Authentic Original Boat Shoe – Mine are mens because the width gives my toes extra room for their weirdness. The men’s style covers more of the top of the foot too. One leather lace goes behind the heel and crosses over the top of the foot creating a snug fit. I’ve had mine since circa 2007 and they’ve looked the same since about 2009.
  • Vans Slip Ons – These are my cutest shoes! I was surprised these were as easy to walk in as they are. I had to size up in order to get them on, but they stay really snug. (Plus, colors for any style!)
  • Merrell Move Glove cross training shoes – These check all the boxes, the annoying thing about the soles is they squeak. I drag my feet sometimes and they make an awful noise when I do. This model is discontinued, but there’s a current version.
  • Vans Sk8 ComfyCush – These are my new gym shoes because of the ankle support. They have exactly the same footprint as the slip ons. The tongue has elastic which keeps the foot secure to the sole (not a feature of the regular Sk8 Hi’s). I lace them tight when I need support and loosen them when I don’t. I find when they are tight, my ankle flexion weakens really fast, just from fighting the shoe.

I have other shoes, but these are my go-to’s for easier walking. If this helped you, send me a note or leave a comment. If it didn’t help, was there different information that would have? Any requests for the next blog?

Note for horsey people. A fact from my hunter equitation days: wearing shoes with lift, whether it is sneakers or stilettos, can respectively shorten the calf muscles which can impede that “sinking into your heels” feeling. 

For those of you who don’t know the title reference here, it’s one of the first viral videos I ever remember. It’s one of those tunes that sticks with you. Fairly raunchy, proceed with caution. “Shoes” by comedian Liam Kyle Sullivan.

The Magic Saddle – The Para Dressage Chronicles, vol. 2

The saddle was scheduled for several modifications. First, a hard hand hold with elements of adjustability. Second, D-rings added for a tie-back stirrup to be used in schooling. Third, slits in the flap to add thigh straps. Fo

Para equestrians, like many adaptive athletes, use specialized equipment, which has to neutralize the detracting ways the body works so para riders can ride effectively and safely. In para dressage, there are standard, profile-specific, and non standard compensating aids. Work with professionals to ensure any equipment you use is safe for you and your horse. Make sure to review the current para dressage rules before using any modified equipment in competition.

As a grade II rider, soft and hard hand holds are profile-specific compensating aids for me. Hand holds are for riders to grab to steady their hands, to pull themselves deep into the saddle, or in case of emergency. I found that a soft hand hold didn’t anchor me as securely as I needed, it was too hard to pick up, too hard to hold onto with my right hand, and it was too long. 

I began using two individual loops attached to each front D-ring. Michel Assouline, U.S. para dressage coach, suggested these at a para clinic and were approved by the Adaptive Equipment Committee as a non standard compensating aid for me. They made a real improvement in my contact. I used my ring finger through my saddle loops and my pointer and middle finger to hold onto my looped reins. I experimented with different materials (different kinds of spur straps, a curb lip strap, paracord), length, how to make them easiest to pick up, and what gaits to use them in. The most successful version was nylon spur straps with tubing to keep them open. I used the loops during all trot work and in all walk movements except the free walk.

Last summer, I sought out advice via video review with Rebecca Hart, a Paralympic para dressage rider. When I trot, my spasticity triggers causing my legs to become stiff and straight. My knee and ankle joints freeze making it hard to sit and carry my hands still. She connected me with her Paralympian teammate, Keith Newerla. He came to give me a lesson with his saddle that has a hard hand hold. He had donated this saddle to Pal-O-Mine Equestrian and they graciously lent it to me for this trial. A hard hand hold is rigidly attached to the saddle and comes in all shapes and sizes. It can help riders improve their contact by quieting their hands. After one ride, it was clear this was what I needed.

I had an essentially brand-new saddle; a Détente Novio from Colleen Meyer and Advanced Saddle Fit. I reached out to Colleen to ask for her help. I had no idea if I needed to buy a new saddle or have my saddle retrofitted with a hard hand hold. Her saddle makers in England were backlogged due to COVID and shipping in and out of the country was taking longer than normal. I began prototyping while I looked for a saddler stateside that could help. I knew how much trial and error I had done with my D-ring loops. When designing my hard hand hold (or bar as we started calling it), I knew I wanted an element of adjustability so I wasn’t sending it to a saddler every time I wanted to tweak it. I scoured social media and Google for riders with hard hand holds (see the Facebook album of what I found). The U.S. ParaEquestrian Association had a few photos in their literature and the FEI Para Dressage Rule Book has maximum height and width restrictions in addition to other tack requirements. I roped my husband into making prototypes with aluminum and steel rods. I had to consider things like height, width, shape, and thickness. We were trying things way out of the box, the first version slid through the D-rings on my saddle and secured and stabilized with everything from Vetwrap, duct tape, chop sticks, para cord, hair ties, and electrical tape – and it worked! We made several versions and with some practice with each version, I began to formulate what worked and didn’t work. This helped me determine exactly how I wanted my saddle permanently modified.

While I played with the prototypes, I needed someone who could do the metal work for the bar and do the leatherwork for the saddle. Through the grapevine of Colleen and her contacts, I connected with Adrienne Hendricks, owner/founder of Adrienne Hendricks Saddlery. Colleen, Adrienne, and I had a conference call to discuss this intricate project. She was instantaneously invested and had great ideas and resources on how to make the necessary adjustments. We scheduled a date to ship the saddle from Virginia to Adrienne in Idaho. 

The saddle was scheduled for several modifications. First, a hard hand hold with elements of adjustability. Second, D-rings added for a tie-back stirrup to be used in schooling. Third, slits in the flap to add thigh straps. Fourth, Velcro added to the back of the flap for moveable back thigh blocks. Fifth, an anatomical front thigh block. Before I shipped the saddle, I took copious measurements, notes, videos, and pictures of each element. I used masking tape and wax pencils on the saddle to give Adrienne as much information as possible. I also sent her many of the pictures I had accumulated during my research.

Adrienne and I chatted often (sometimes every day) about the specifics of how I wanted the modifications and the reasons behind each of them. She was incredible; totally invested in learning how my body works and how to make this saddle the best it could be. The metal work guys got totally into it too! They wanted to the bar to be just right. We did have to restrain ourselves from delving into the rabbit holes of “what ifs,” “try this,” and “could we…” We knew that there is only so much to be done until you actually sit in the saddle and ride the horse. 

The end result was better than I ever could have imagined. Not only did I get one bar, I got TWO! These bars bolt into the “paddles.” The paddles attach to the tree and allow for the bar angle to be adjusted with a simple crescent wrench. I had successful prototypes in two different shapes, so she made them both. They are also padded and covered in calf skin. Additional ones could be made at a local HVAC or similar metal shop – sky’s the limit on bar design. The D-rings are functional and discreet. The heroes have ended up being the new thigh block and flap Velcro. I feel so safe and so secure with this front and back block configuration, I haven’t needed to use the slits for thigh straps. (Plus, less Velcro holding me on, the better.) 

I depend on the bar heavily during my warm-up as my body warms up and we get in a groove together. I hold onto it with my outside hand while also holding the rein. To turn from the outside rein, I slide my hand across the bar towards the inside. Now that I’ve spent a few weeks in the saddle, I’m really getting a feel for how to best utilize the bar to ride my best and prevent my body from disrupting Mason. I find it helps my contact and balance. The irony of it all is that I’m using the bar less than I ever would have imagined because I am so anchored by the blocks that my contact is improving.

Thank goodness for the supportive para dressage world. During my research, I spoke with other riders who use modified saddles, each told the story that it’s really just a matter of muddling through. I thought I’d share my story and my resources in hopes it might help the next para rider looking for a modification. If you are that rider: Any of the people mentioned or tagged in my Facebook album were incredibly kind and helpful. Don’t hesitate to reach out to them or me. Good luck!


The Para Dressage Chronicles, vol. 1

March/April 2021

Sprieser Sporthorse and Clearwater Farms has been a thing of my dreams since I started my para dressage journey. In the very beginning, in May 2018, I met Lisa Hellmer through Sprout Therapeutic Riding Center. Lisa was then the assistant trainer at Sprieser Sporthorse. Since then I have occasionally visited the pristine barn and beautiful ring. Watching the spectacular horses and riders in their strategized, competition-oriented programs helped me formulate what it might take for me to ride at the highest level of para dressage of which I’m capable. 

And, here we are! Thanks to Lauren Sprieser, grand poobah of Sprieser Sporthorse; Amanda Fitze, Mason’s owner; and my incredible village who has made it financially possible, Mason arrived at Sprieser Sporthorse on March 4th, 2021. Ours is a new partnership. He is the principal in our dance company; the chaperone to my developing dressage education.  His CV includes upper-level training under respected names with pretty ribbons at a multitude of prestigious shows. He’s stoic, sensible, kid-friendly, food motivated, and oh-so-dreamy. Lauren; Karrigan, assistant trainer; Rachel, barn manager; Calah, working student; and Emma, working student have keen and exacting eyes on Mason and me was we “go to college” together.

Our first month was time for all of us, horse and humans, to get to know one another. At first, he was like an ascetic house guest, continually in a state of ready apology for any misgiving – we’re talking ultra-polite. Now that we’ve spent some time together, the shell is beginning to crack. A first order of business was to halter and bridle him from my scooter – each time two ears pop out from the crownpiece, I stuff a cookie into his maw. He now parks his nose in my crotch whenever he is remotely peckish – it’s quite unsightly. Many of the horses in the barn have taken a liking to the “cookie cart.” We have had zero miscommunications grooming or tacking up, it’s like someone has been picking out his feet from a scooter his entire life. 

Determining the best way and place to mount has been more puzzling for the people than it has been for Mason. The ladies who help me are beyond knowledgeable and capable and rival politeness with Mason. It is a bit presumptuous of me to ask them to shove my broken body aboard the horse they don’t know in a way that brings near strangers into close bodily contact during a time we’ve become accustomed to six feet of social distancing. All this intensified by my cries of, “Do it faster!” “Push harder!” and “You won’t hurt me.” Oy vey. They have been brilliant, and fortunately, I haven’t stuff treats into their mouths. Although, now that I think about it, some baked goods, at the very least, are probably in order. Again, zero mishaps mounting and dismounting thus far.

Mason has been doing more babysitting and, well, sitting, than working over the winter. I shouldn’t judge, I did a lot of nothing over our wet winter too. We have been getting in shape together. We started with walking in brief, 20-minute stints as to not exacerbate Mason’s old suspensory injury and for Karrigan, Mason, and I to get to know one another. Plus, when there are only two gaits in your tests, there is plenty to keep busy in the walk. The trot work came in short, uneventful bursts for a few weeks and now we are up and running.

Whilst all this getting-to-know-each-other was going on, we began the equipment assessment. Each horse (and rider for that matter) is a unique little snowflake, so the solutions that were magical for Robin haven’t been so for Mason. Tack has to be safe, effective for communication, and acceptable for competition. Problemo numero uno: reins. I have reduced grip strength and dexterity in my right hand. With Robin, looped reins worked like a charm. Thus far, we’ve eliminated those and Correct Connect reins (Velcro reins and gloves) from the list of possibilities. Finding what doesn’t work is almost as useful as finding what does work; also, walking the line between giving something a fair trial, but not chasing it down the rabbit hole. The current winner is thick reins with hand stops. I’m on the hunt for some rubber reins with hand stops like these ones. (PS If you’re reading this from a manufacturer or tack shop and you’d let us trial your reins, that’d be awesome!) Something we have decided on, at least for now, is that the elastic inserts in the reins work for us.

Saddle modifications to increase the stability in my contact and security for my seat have been in the works since October 2020 (remember that snowflake comment? Smh). I sent it off just two weeks after Mason arrived. We’re using my old saddle which isn’t optimal for either of us, but not hurting either of us either. Some truly ingenious work is being done and I eagerly await its return. Expect a full description of the whole story when its back!

I can’t believe how much stronger I feel now that I’m riding five, six, sometimes seven days a week when I get to sit on Robin too. Everything seems to be a little bit easier – rolling over in bed, getting in and out of the car, getting my saddle up to the back or saddle rack. Sometimes I forget that this is indeed therapy for my body, not just my spirit. I’m getting used to the new routine – the little bit farther drive that takes a little bit longer, through fields of cows instead of highways. My heart pitter-patters when I drive down the driveway to see Mason greeting me through his half-door. Mason is still a little perplexed as to why this lady won’t just put her legs on his sides, the poor guy. He hasn’t faltered. He hasn’t taken one misstep. And now that I’ve jinxed myself on all counts, I’ll probably drop my saddle, fall off the mounting block, bust my reins, and Mason will spook at something, but if I manage to get both feet in the stirrups, it’ll have been a great day.

Welcome to the club.

It’s a big year. This year I will have had multiple sclerosis for as long as I didn’t. I was diagnosed in 2004 and 17 years later, here we are. It all started with some numbness on the left side of my face that migrated to my left ear and down my neck. An MRI revealed my “textbook” relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis with three brain lesions and seven spinal lesions. This diagnosis put the pieces together for some vision problems I had been having and a strange episode of back pain I had as a 15-year-old. 

My “Uncle” Mike was a big part of my life when I was a tween. When I was diagnosed, his wife, Rita, was the only person I knew of who had had multiple sclerosis. She was severely disabled by secondary progressive multiple sclerosis. She passed away due to complications of her disease before I met him. She needed help with almost every element of daily living. I had heard tales of how Mike made sure she ate first, she slept first, her needs were always his priority. He was completely devoted to her and her every need. When I was diagnosed, this was all I knew about multiple sclerosis. I couldn’t believe this was the same disease I had, I was 17.

For the first few weeks after I was diagnosed, my dad and I maintained a steady state of denial. Then all of a sudden, we would just be overcome with grief. I remember crossing paths with him in the dining room and he hugged me. We stood there sobbing, shoulders shaking, clinging to one another. For several minutes we cried together. Then he gave me an extra squeeze, we grabbed napkins to wipe our snotty and tear-soaked faces, and we continued on our paths. No words were spoken. To this day, that is the most healing hug I’ve ever gotten, but I know where to get another one.

My mom has a supernatural power that most physicians develop, they learn to compartmentalize and control their emotions. No matter how fierce the winds of anger blew or how water from tears of grief raged, she was the rock that was stronger than the storm. She instilled that strength in me – lovingly and tenderly and like a badass. This strength is at the core of my ability to see past a setback or a bad day with MS.

The best advice I received was ABSOLUTELY, under no circumstances should I Google MS right away. The Internet has zero reliability to provide helpful, moderate information. I quickly learned that setting the right mindset was paramount. I went to an MS Patient Awareness Day shortly after my diagnosis and it scared the hell out of me. I came away thinking that people with this disease became one dimensional: DISABLED. There were so many wheelchairs, canes, walkers, scooters, and sick people! It did not represent where my disease was at that point. I quickly learned to control my “mindspace” and am still incredibly cautious about what I allow in. 

I started a disease modifying therapy right away. I started a vitamin regimen to address a vitamin D deficiency, fatigue, and nerve cell health. Sure, they were daily reminders of MS, but they also made me feel like I was doing something about it. I clung to my horses for mental health and to continue physical well-being. I am an action-oriented person; making this plan was incredibly empowering. Every. Single. Day., I have a plan.

I can’t tell you how often I’m asked, “My [friend, aunt, coworker, nephew…] was recently diagnosed with MS. Would you be willing to talk to them?” I love this question because it makes me feel like my tenure with this illness has created something valuable to be shared with others. I hate this question, it means another person with this illness.  

But, of course, my answer is always, “Yes. Absolutely.”

To you, newest member of the MS Club, here is my advice to you. And to you, the person whose loved one just received this news, this is for you too.

Being diagnosed with MS SUCKS! I know that’s the thing you’re not expecting to hear. The fact is it *#!%ing blows! It’s ok to feel this and feel it hard. Remember though, you have MS, MS doesn’t have you. We live in an incredible time with support organizations, remarkable pharmaceuticals, therapy options, anti-inflammatory diets, natural supplements, and the Internet.

Absorbing this news is going to be a process for you and the people in your life. You may feel like you have to be strong, brave, knowledgeable, and assured while you ride the denial, grief, and anger roller coaster. If you decide that you will come to terms with it, you will. You are in charge.

Find your hug – the person who needs no words of explanation. The person who will be sad with you, wipe your tears, and move on with you. Find your rock – the person who will help you find your strength. Learn from her, absorb her strength, and develop your own. Make a plan – take action to feel empowered. Control your input – only allow the necessary information in at this time. The National MS Society has an informative landing page designed just for you.

I am here to tell you, this is not a death sentence. MS is just PART of who I am, but MS is just a part of who I AM. I am also a woman, a wife, and a mother. I am a horse lover, an equestrian, and an athlete. I am a cook, a writer, and an animal-lover. Welcome to the club, I’m here for you.

Note: (This advice is applicable to any diagnosis. Let’s face it, any diagnosis sucks, how much it sucks depends on how invasive it is going to be and how long it’s going to be around. This advice can help with just about anything, I think.)

“Why does she walk like that?!”

I’m going to rip this Band-Aid off. Here’s a video of me walking. The absolutely most difficult thing for me to share. I hate videos of me walking because it shows a disabled person and that’s not how I feel. For years, I have avoided having my picture taken with my scooter, canes, or walker because those were “temporary” tools and “I won’t need those for forever”. Newsflash: maybe they are here to stay. Disability is a strange thing. I may share a disability with someone, but not their diagnosis. Anyone affected by an outward disability hears the same unspoken question, “I wonder why she walks like that.” (And I’m sure it’s never phrased, “What’s wrong with her?”) Here’s my explanation on why she walks that way.

First, a 91-word anatomy and physiology lesson. Muscle groups sometimes work in pairs: when one side contracts, the other relaxes. Quadriceps straighten the knee and hamstrings bend the knee. Calf muscles point the toes and the shin muscles lift the toes. Sometimes muscles work as a group, like hip flexors that flex the hip during the swing of a step. The large and small muscle groups work together to control balance and locomotion. Voluntary and involuntary muscle action is controlled by the nervous system. This is a very simple explanation of an incredibly complex thing we call walking.

Second, a 75-word explanation of multiple sclerosis. “Sclerosis” means scar. Think of nerve cells like electrical wire. The wire, or axon, is what transmits the current; the coating, or myelin, creates a protected channel for the current. In MS patients, myelin is attacked by the immune system; think mice chewing on the electrical wire. The chew marks eventually scar. “Multiple” scars result in the nerve cells transmitting faulty or missing information. These scars are in the brain and on the spinal cord.

My mice have wreaked havoc on my electrical circuits. As a result, the signals to the voluntary and involuntarily muscles used for walking are all out of whack. Spasticity is when muscles get a strong message to contract, but not the same strength signal to relax. I am most affected by spasticity in the large muscle that extend my knees and point my toes. The muscle pairs begin to work against rather than with one another. The counter muscles can’t overpower the spastic muscle. To compensate, I swing my legs outward from my hips. The little muscles in the foot and ankle responsible for balancing are powerless against a flexed quad and calf and result in poor balance. Over time, unused or underused muscles become weak. Just like damaged electrical circuits, somedays my body works better than others. My circuits are more damaged on my right side. Upsides: it is not painful and I CAN walk!

I wrote this explanation because I overheard a lady say to her friend, “Why do you think she walks like that?” I found it strangely cathartic to write this for a person who will never read it. I also am not offended by her innocent curiosity. As someone who is disabled, I find myself wondering the same of others sometimes.

There are two kinds of disabled people: those who own their disability and those who let it own them. I’m the former. I can find appreciation in my circumstance. Walking this way is fatiguing, I have learned to pace myself. I am independent to a fault, so I am learning to ask for help (…sometimes, it’s a work in progress). I have learned to appreciate that I have lots of tools, from my canes, to my scooter, to a stranger’s offered arm. In the world where we can always use an uplifting story and it’s so easy to complain about the bad stuff, I’d like to share my good stuff and how I find positives in the bad stuff. We’ll see how it goes.