Young Stroke Survivor Rides Again
On a brisk late fall afternoon, with the low sun shining through the trees, Sarah Tegtmeier is riding atop a chestnut gelding, trotting back and forth and around one of the rings at a Warrington, Pa., stable. She and the horse, Steven, are carving out patterns in the loose sand, traipsing delicately over log barriers in the arena. Her instructor calls out instructions, and offers words of encouragement.
“Get him to go where you want him to go,” she says. “Nice job … awesome!”
Tegtmeier’s right arm is tucked into a sling, with a jacket over the top of that. She holds the reins loosely in her left hand. It’s a challenge riding this way, but Tegtmeier is up for it. And there’s a purpose. In April 2015, she had an aneurysm in her brain, followed by a stroke, which left her weak on her right side and, initially, unable to talk. She’s riding at Special Equestrians, a purpose-built facility that provides equine therapy for people with a broad range of disabilities.
Tegtmeier is no stranger to horses. She started riding when she was 5, and was one of those little girls who practically live at the stable—anything, even mucking out the muckiest of stalls, to be near horses. She rode ponies first, and then it was on to horses. In high school and college, she rode competitively, focusing on showmanship and jumping.
Ask her what riding does for her, and she answers with a radiant smile: “Joy.”
Given what happened to her a few years ago—she is now 38—getting to joy might have been a tough go, but she takes happiness where she finds it.
‘I Have a Huge Headache. What Should I Do?’
Tegtmeier, who had been employed as an oil spill director at Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research in Newark, Del., was en route to a conference in Nova Scotia when she stopped in Buffalo to visit a friend. That was when the first symptoms appeared. “I called another friend, Katie, and said, ‘I have a huge headache. What should I do?’ So she called her sister, who’s a nurse, and she said to call 911.”
Tegtmeier underwent emergency surgery for the aneurysm at Mercy Hospital in Buffalo. An aneurysm is a weakness or swelling in an artery—kind of like a bubble in a bicycle tire. When an aneurysm ruptures, it releases blood into the brain. Tegtmeier underwent surgery to repair the aneurysm, but then, a few days later, she had a stroke. After she was stabilized, she was sent to MossRehab, the renowned physical and cognitive rehabilitation arm of Einstein Healthcare Network, where she received inpatient therapy over the course of three months.
“I could barely walk,” she recalls of that time. “I didn’t have speech. But I worked hard, and I exceeded my expectations.”
Today, Tegtmeier wears a leg brace and a specialized splint, invented at MossRehab, on her right hand. She received outpatient therapy, but she also now volunteers at the facility and takes part in the Roots and Shoots horticultural therapy program in MossRehab’s award-winning Alice and Herbert Sachs Therapeutic Conservatory.
Strong and Determined
Tegtmeier walks with a slight limp and sometimes struggles to find the right word, but she is strong, determined and good-humored.
All traits that come in handy when you’re tending to horses.
Tegtmeier, who now lives with her parents in Warminster, Pa., spends an hour each week at Special Equestrians. Her session begins with getting the horse ready to ride. Using her left hand primarily, she hooks Steven up to cross-ties, checks him for cuts and scrapes, and brushes him down. Steven seems to like to nibble the brushes, which makes her laugh.
She tosses a saddle over his back, and attaches a bridle and cinches it up. With help from Special Equestrians program director and instructor Claire Oestreich, she cleans out his hooves. Steven submits to the process good-naturedly, standing as still as a statue.
That’s not always the case, says Oestreich. Steven, like most horses—or most people, for that matter—can have days when he’s sluggish, and days when he’s a bit hyper. On Steven’s frisky days, Oestreich needs to step in and help out, but on this day—aside from a passing interest in nibbling the brushes—Steven is a model of equine decorum.
When Tegtmeier started riding at Special Equestrians about a year ago, she needed help to get her horse ready to ride. Not so, now.
“That’s something that has been more recent, within the past four to six months,” says Oestreich. “Not all of our riders do that. I know that Sarah was riding before her condition took place, and she was probably doing all of it by herself. I think she just wanted to get back into it. She was supervised at first, but now she practically does it all on her own. If she needs two hands, that’s where I step in, but she always tries on her own first. I love watching her do that because when she does that, it’s a success.”
Out in the ring, even more challenging work begins, much of it designed to strengthen Tegtmeier’s right side—using body movement and even breath to help Steven know where to go and what to do.
“She really wants to strengthen that right side, so that’s a lot of what we focus on,” says Oestreich. “She’ll use the left side, but then we also focus on purely using the right side or having it be the majority of her right side, to control Steven. Really, it’s a lot of using her body, seat and leg to work with Steven.”
Although Oestreich was not Tegtmeier’s original instructor, she’s seen incredible progress over the last year. In the beginning, Tegtmeier was not at all independent. “As she got stronger, she was able to become more independent with her horse, which means no leader, no side aides, riding completely by herself, with me, somewhat in the middle of the arena, which is really cool to think about.”
Riding without help is just as much a thrill for Tegtmeier. She says, “I can’t wait till I get to cantering and jumping.”
Tegtmeier is determined to get there. With the help of her four-legged friend Steven, nothing seems impossible.
“Sarah adores him and he adores her, and most days he is willing to do what she wants,” Oestreich says. “That partnership is just amazing to watch.”