Paralysis doesn't stop 60-year-old from getting back in the saddle.
Although East County’s Dan Mohl was wearing a mask, you could tell he was smiling as he rode his horse Gallagher around Sarasota-Manatee Association for Riding Therapy’s arena Aug. 27.
He hadn’t been able to ride a horse in the past six months because he was required to stay at his assisted living facility, The Fountains of Hope, due to COVID-19 restrictions.
For a man who had been riding horses since he was 12 years old living in Buffalo, N.Y., the months of waiting to get back on a horse were agonizing.
“It’s been horrible,” Mohl said. “Six months is a long time. It’s not fun.”
Mohl would feel depressed at times because he was forced to stay indoors. It took a toll on his mental and physical health because riding horses is a form of therapy for Mohl, who had a hemorrhagic stroke in fall 2010.
One night Mohl went to bed like any other night but woke up in a bed at Sarasota Memorial Hospital. He had to face the unexpected reality that the left side of his body was paralyzed and that he was blind in his right eye.
“I just went to bed one night and woke up this way,” Mohl said. “I was totally healthy. Nobody knows why I had the brain bleed. Doctors told me, ‘You’ll be lucky if you ever walk again.’”
Mohl had four surgeries on his right eye in hopes of getting his sight back. Unfortunately, the surgeries were not successful.
After years of therapy, Mohl is able to slowly walk with a cane. He hopes to someday walk cane-free.
No matter the challenges he has faced as a result of his stroke, Mohl remains optimistic.
“You can’t live like that forever, so I have to keep going,” he said. “Every day is a challenge, but you have to do it.”
Being back at SMART and riding horses again helps Mohl develop his core muscles and work on his balance. Mohl said the way horses walk helps his body recognize how he should walk because the movements are similar. Having time outside and being around people and horses helps with Mohl’s mental health.
Mohl was excited to be surrounded by SMART volunteers, catching up on how they’ve been doing during the pandemic and joking around. He’s been riding at SMART for seven years.
“It’s like a family,” Mohl said. “Everybody here is so good to me. We always have a good time.”
His eyes brightened as he put himself into the driver’s seat of the golf cart and rode with Samantha Toomey, barn manager at SMART, to the arena for his riding session. Taking a golf cart is as close to driving as Mohl can get because of his paralysis.
Then he steadily walked his way up the ramp to a white plastic chair, where he sat waiting for Gallagher to be put in position. Toomey and Corinne Adams, a volunteer, helped Mohl get into the lift, so he could be safely and securely placed in the saddle.
Once on the horse, Toomey guided Mohl through a few muscle exercises and stretches before taking Gallagher on a stroll throughout the arena.
“I love [being back],” Mohl said. “I’m serious about getting back at it. You have to start somewhere.”
Horses have been Mohl’s passion for decades. When he couldn’t afford go to riding camp, he would teach others about horses.
His dedication and passion for dressage, a discipline for riding a horse, led him to compete at the Northeast Regional Finals in 1981 when he was 21 years old. He placed 15th out of 30 riders.
He continued to pursue his passion of riding horses until 2007, when he had a back injury. He moved to Florida to receive therapeutic intervention in Sarasota.
However, he said a back injury and a stroke won’t stop him. His dream is to compete again, with the Paralympics as a goal. However, there will be challenges.
After his riding session Aug. 27, Mohl said he was required to quarantine for 14 days because of the protocols at The Fountains of Hope, so he again excitedly awaits for a day when he can return to SMART and get back in the saddle without the long interruptions.
If he can continue training regularly and obtain a sponsorship, he believes he can accomplish his goal and make his family and friends proud.
“I’m not done yet,” Mohl said.