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Dressage Helped My Dyslexia

In June 2022, my boyfriend and I rented a vacation house with a tennis court. One afternoon, he asked me if I wanted to go out and hit the ball around. I said, "You know how that goes. I can't hit the ball." He said, "Let's try.”

The last time we were on a court together, I was in my early 30s, and playing tennis was untenable, an exercise in frustration for both of us. At 57, I had zero expectations that things would be different.

Over the years, he witnessed me struggle to high-five someone or catch something he mindlessly tossed my way. Once, he blurted out, "It's like you have feet for hands." It was an accurate analogy. My hands were about as useful as my feet to catch something.

The yellow ball came over the net toward me. I swung at it and miraculously hit it back to him. We looked at each other with surprise as he returned the ball. I connected again. We played tennis, or more accurately, hit the ball around during our remaining days there. I thought it was a fluke the first day. I fully expected the gift to be gone the second day, but it wasn't. The third day, it was there, and every day since.

The newfound ability was nothing short of stunning. On the court, I didn't feel like myself. It was as if someone else was inhabiting my body. I was not the person I had known my whole life. The child that got picked last in whiffle ball, kickball, and every other team sport when I was in school.

What changed? Why was my brain functioning as it never had before?

I attributed the change to dressage. I moved my horse to a dressage barn in April of 2019. I quickly called out my dyslexia to the trainer to explain why I may not follow her instruction as fast as others she'd taught. Unfazed by my declaration, she told me she had taught people with dyslexia successfully.

At various times, I found myself telling friends and family that riding dressage is like rubbing your stomach and patting your head on steroids. I described how dressage is a continual interplay between your left and right sides.

I noted myself getting better at all the right-left, up-down, pattern work and silently felt proud for getting it. I had no idea that this hobby was changing my brain in other ways.

I was diagnosed with dyslexia at the age of 6. I struggled in first grade. My mother noticed I wrote the letters of my name backward. I also naturally read from right to left, and I didn't possess age-appropriate hand-eye coordination.

My parents decided to have me repeat the first grade and enrolled me in Special Education. The teachers in Special Ed tutored me in reading and writing. We worked tirelessly on my balance and hand-eye coordination as well. I recall bouncing a ball repeatedly with both my left, or dominant hand, and my right, walking on a balance beam, and then the most demanding activity, walking on the beam while bouncing a ball.

The intervention made a difference for me, and the rest of my academic was standard except for significant test anxiety. I graduated college cum laude with a marketing degree.

By the time I was an adult, I had come to accept my lack of hand-eye coordination and tactfully avoided activities that would highlight my disability. I could do many things—running, biking, hiking, skiing, triathlon, and more. I focused on these activities and was good at them.

There was one dreaded, common, hand-gestured that always left me feeling embarrassed: the high-five. For the other person, it's a spontaneous way to connect and celebrate, to say, "Good job" or "Well done." But when you have dyslexia, that simple action can cause the person to feel uncomfortable or even ashamed. Such was the case for me.

Otherwise, dyslexia didn't hinder me or my ability to be successful in my 28-year financial services career. Periodically, if I were overtired, I'd catch myself reversing letters in a word when I was writing, and my ability to spell declined from its already lower level than that of a person without this disability.

I'm fortunate that I had early intervention since it made a significant difference in my scholastic career, for which I am grateful. However, it did not eradicate the feelings of low self-esteem and lack of confidence. I doubted I was "smart," even in the face of evidence to the contrary. There was an ever-present undercurrent of self-doubt.

I'm writing this blog to highlight the incredible neuroplasticity of the brain, even in middle-aged people. Also, I want to provide adults with dyslexia with the hope that they don't have to settle for what has been their norm. Their brains can change.

Lastly, I want to illustrate the incredible changes that may occur when you partner with a horse. Early intervention has the potential to rewire the brain, giving the child the best possible chance to perform a normal range of activities.

By Diane R. Jones

November 2023

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