Come As You Are: Taking MS One Ride At a Time with Lisa Lorenzo

After a long night tending to her mare as she battled an episode of colic, Lisa Lorenzo awoke one morning in 2020 to find her right leg completely numb. Dismissing the issue as a pinched nerve from the long drive to the vet the day before, she continued on with her day. In the coming weeks, Lisa’s symptoms would rapidly progress and worsen in severity, and her coworkers at the hospital where she works as a pharmacist would urge her to visit the emergency department. Just a few short weeks later, Lisa was diagnosed with a brain lesion due to the onset of multiple sclerosis (MS).

MS is a long-lasting neurological autoimmune disease affecting the central nervous system – primarily the brain and spinal cord. As with other autoimmune diseases, the body’s white blood cells trigger inflammation in response to its own immune system; in MS, it specifically targets the protective layer around nerve cells called myelin. This damage forms lesions (like scar tissue) in the brain or spinal cord’s nervous system, decreasing or disabling the nerves’ functions. This can lead to debilitating symptoms such as vision problems, numbness, muscle weakness, fatigue, and loss of coordination or balance.

Thankfully, after a successful therapeutic intervention later that year called plasmapheresis – a process in which the white blood cells in your body are separated out and replaced, removing the harmful antibodies in your blood plasma – Lisa’s symptoms were all drastically slowed, and many reversed entirely. Lisa still suffers from episodes of right-sided weakness and numbness, which are greatly exacerbated in times of stress or when exposed to heat – which is especially unfortunate for this Ocala resident.

Lisa and Ballinglen King riding cross-country at Rocking Horse H.T. Photo by Xpress Foto.

Growing up as a local hunter/jumper rider, Lisa had always watched in awe as all the ‘cool kids’ schooled and showed in eventing. After taking time away from riding to complete pharmacy school, she was back in the saddle as an adult with a trainer who would teach her the ropes in the “cool kid” sport. A few years later, with eyes on working up the levels to compete in CCI2* events, Lisa purchased 4-year-old Irish Sport Horse gelding Ballinglen King just 10 days before her first symptom manifested.

In the end, Lisa says, it all worked out for the best. ‘Rowan’, as he’s known in the barn, was still young and green, and needed some time with Lisa’s trainer to grow up and learn the basics. As Lisa learned how to navigate life with her diagnosis, Rowan gained confidence and the skills necessary to navigate life as an event horse. Both horse and rider took it slow in 2021 at local events and schooling shows as Lisa worked to determine her physical limits in riding.

Coming to terms with a new future is one of the biggest obstacles those with chronic illness must face. Once wholly focused on keeping up with her peers and moving up the levels, Lisa quickly learned that a new reality was inevitable. While grateful for her successful treatment and current positive prognosis, Lisa knows that life with MS has the potential to change overnight; she keeps a positive outlook by simply taking life one day at a time.

Lisa’s outlook and goals quickly adjusted, no longer focused on the prize but instead on the journey. Rowan has helped her on this journey by keeping her focused on the simple things. “He makes me want to be better,” she admits, explaining that he serves as a reminder that she has to take care of her health before all else. “Rowan is exactly the horse I didn’t know I needed, and I wouldn’t trade him for anything.” Lisa says that she is comforted knowing Rowan is safe enough that, should her health decline in the future, they could still lead a good and happy life of trail riding together.

“Finally made it past the mailboxes.” Photo courtesy of Lisa Lorenzo.

If managing her 40-hour work week with riding wasn’t enough, managing life on an anti-inflammatory diet is a full-time job of its own (as I know all too well – gluten is the most ruthless of enemies!). Some days when it just seems like the sun sets too early, it can be hard to maintain the balance between your health and horses. After a year of conquering Novice level with Rowan in 2022, Lisa says that she’s come to terms with bad days; sometimes when your body is fighting you, the most you can manage is just showing up, or going out for a hack. “He doesn’t care if we do a two-star,” Lisa says. “He’s happy if I just show up with a peppermint.”

After just completing their first Training event together at Rocking Horse, Lisa looks forward to their upcoming season. Even though she tries to focus more on current plans than future goals, she has her heart set on competing with Rowan in a Classic Three-Day Event at Training Level this fall.

“If we get there, that’s great, but if not, it’s fine. I just want to be happy,” she explains. “As awesome as our cross-country round was this weekend, I am just as thankful that he has learned to stand next to a mounting block for me to step off when I am unable to dismount like most riders.”

While Lisa is grateful for her current level of mobility, she knows that could one day change, so accessibility is always on her mind. She mentions that her weekend at Rocking Horse would have looked drastically different had she needed to rely on a walker or wheelchair, as her future may one day demand. Aside from commandeering a golf cart, a cross-country course walk – or even just navigating the show grounds – would have been impossible.

“Rowan saving my bacon over the last fence in stadium” at Rocking Horse H.T. Photo by Xpress Foto.

Lisa also makes a brilliant suggestion towards improving accessibility that, simply put, blew my mind. Heat intolerance is a battle that many people with chronic illness, disability, and neurologic conditions fight constantly – myself and Lisa included (shielding myself from the sun during a weekend event is more difficult than riding a good dressage test). She proposes that those with similar afflictions could request accommodations to allow a start time earlier in the day if competing at lower levels. As someone who has been dreaming of moving up the levels for the lower morning temperatures alone, adjustments like this could afford those with chronic illness the same opportunities that able-bodied riders have – an even playing field.

Aside from equity in accessibility, Lisa also hopes to advocate for continued improvements in equine welfare throughout our sport. She mentions a discussion on social media initiated by Dr. David Marlin – an equine veterinarian and leading scientist in equine research – that caught her attention recently. The post stemmed from an animal rights protest during a recent showjumping competition, and Lisa’s vision for the eventing community is to, above all, “just love and respect your horse.” There may be a wide spectrum of what is considered “ethical” in horse sport, but eventers are often at the forefront of these movements due to the inherent and increased risks associated with our discipline, so we must continue making positive steps towards safety for all.

As I’ve mentioned previously in this series, accepting life with chronic illness has the ability to trigger a focus on negativity, or it can foster a mindset of peace and clarity. While such a person could easily suppress their dreams and aspirations due to fear of the unknown, Lisa says she has chosen not to live in fear and worry, and instead embraces all that she has now with positivity and contentment. “I will deal with whatever the future brings,” she affirms. “Until then, I’m going to have fun and enjoy every moment I get with horses.”

Rowan says “Cheese!” Photo courtesy of Lisa Lorenzo.

Eventing is one of the toughest horse sports out there, and I believe anyone facing additional challenges deserves to be recognized. If you are also a person facing challenging or unique circumstances, combating differences and diversity, or living with a “special” body, I would love to hear from you, share your story, and advocate for your differences. Send me an email at [email protected] for the chance to be featured in a future article!

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