Sunday, September 16, 2007

Horse is therapeutic for Parkinson's patient

Photo: Jason Hunter / The Capital-Journal

With a stethoscope around his neck to monitor the heart rate of his Arabian horse Josh, Mike Urschel, 54, of Wabash, Ind., relaxes with his companion Bev Staats following a seven-hour horseback ride to Burlingame. He is a rider in the Great Santa Fe Trail Horse Race.

Rider with Parkinson's disease says time on his mount is therapeutic during 11-day, 800-mile journey
By James Carlson
The Capital-Journal
Published Friday, September 14, 2007

BURLINGAME — Trotting along the Santa Fe Trail on his purebred Arabian, Mike Urschel doesn't tremble, he doesn't shake and — if you can believe it — he feels better than when he is out of the stirrups.

Only when he is on solid ground again do you notice the slight hunch, the measured tones in his voice that hint at Parkinson's disease.

"When I'm riding, I don't feel anything, like every neuron is moving with that horse," he said half an hour after he and his horse, Josh, crossed the finish line first during Thursday's stretch of the 800-mile, 11-day Great Santa Fe Trail Horse Race.

The 40 riders began their day at 7:15 a.m. in Council Grove and seven hours, 50 miles and 80,000 steps later, Urschel won the day's ride.

"I feel better today than I have all week," he said.

So far, he and Josh have placed first, second and third in some of the race stages.

The race began Sept. 1 in Santa Fe, N.M. Some days, such as Thursday, participants ride their horses for seven hours. Other days they are in the saddle longer.

From his early days in Wabash, Ind., Urschel loved to ride. He said that after his dad left for work each day, he would throw his leg over a horse and ride all day.

"You fool," his dad would say.

But when the disease's symptoms snuck around the corner of his 50th birthday, Urschel found solace in the saddle.

He takes Mirapex. He soaks his feet in solution. The gruff, mustached 54-year-old even does yoga. But nothing works like riding.

Urschel's neurologists don't know why. He isn't sure either, but everyone has got an idea.

Darolyn Butler should know. She has traveled the world, from Brazil to Portugal to the United Arab Emirates, riding in world championships.

"Time on a horse is time standing still," she said. "You don't age when you're up there."

Maggie Rankin, of Clovis, N.M., watched Urschel cross the line and commented about Josh, "That's one hell of a horse."

To why the symptoms of Urschel's Parkinson's might wane while riding, she offered an old cowboy saying, "The outside of a horse is good for the inside of a man."

As a salesman back in Indiana, Urschel doesn't "function too good sometimes," he said. Standing in a grassy field outside Burlingame, his shoulders fold inward, his mouth doesn't portray his often humorous tone.

"That's the Parkinson's for you," said Bev Staats, Urschel's companion of five years.

Maybe it is this intimate knowledge of life's edges that has Urschel not pushing Josh as hard as some other riders. An hour after he finished, Urschel popped open a can of Miller Lite and pointed to another horse lying in the grass receiving a veterinarian's care.

"I don't ever want to push my horse to the point he has to do that," Urschel said.

He called it a "shame, a tragedy" that two horses died Tuesday when they ran past the finish line and into a road where they were hit by an oncoming car in the central Kansas county of McPherson. The two riders were airlifted to a Wichita hospital.

Urschel said he always wants to win the "best condition" category, which is a combination of finish place and the horse's health.

As for his condition, Urschel knows it will catch up to him, and riding will someday cease its therapeutic affects and become impossible. That day is a ways off, he says.

In fact, with 105 miles to go, he may just keep on keepin' on after the race ends Sunday in Independence, Mo.

Maybe he will ride on through to home in Wabash, Ind.

"Nah, even then, I'll just keep riding and riding and riding," he said. "That'd be good. Never stop."

James Carlson can be reached at (785) 295-1186 or

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