Riding After a Joint Replacement

Facing a joint-replacement surgery, but afraid you won’t get back in the saddle afterward? Three riders share their experiences to offer you encouragement and insight.

We worry plenty about our horses’ joints, but at some point in life, our own joints may worry us. Age, injuries, and general wear and tear can make joints painful and everyday routines difficult. That’s when your doctor might recommend a joint replacement. Your avid-rider heart might sink at the prospect, but that doesn’t have to be the case.

[READ: Tips to Ride at Any Age]

Keep riding even after joint-replacement surgery.

Here, we’ll share the stories of three riders who’ve experienced joint-replacement surgery and have returned to riding or plan to. Additionally, a surgeon who specializes in total hip and knee replacements will provide his expertise on what to expect.

New Shoulder, New Hip, Still Cutting
Cutting competitor C.H. DeHaan, age 61, of Scottsdale, Arizona, had his joint replacements in his 50s—a relatively early age for the procedure. Raised on a Kansas cattle ranch and having ridden and shown horses all his life, he maintains it wasn’t riding that took its toll on his joints, but rather two other sports.

Credit: C.H. DeHaan Photo courtesy of C.H. DeHaan

“I’d injured my shoulder playing basketball and lived with chronic shoulder pain for about 10 years,” he says. “During that time, I’d tried arthroscopic surgery to repair it twice, and resorted to cortisone injections in the year leading up to my decision to have the joint replaced. The cortisone injections became less effective each time, though. The idea of replacement was a little scary, but the misery got so bad I finally bit the bullet and had the surgery.

“I also race cars, and about a year prior to my hip replacement I drove in a seven-day, open-road auto race from Guatemala to Texas in a seat that was too small for me,” DeHaan continues. “It cut off circulation to my hip, which became necrotic and just deteriorated from there. I spent about a year in pain with the hip, but since I’d had such a great result with my shoulder replacement, I wasn’t apprehensive to have the hip done.”

DeHaan went to nine or 10 doctors for his shoulder before he found one who told him he could continue the activities he’d been doing before the surgery. “I needed to relieve the pain, which is why most people get these joint replacements, but I also wanted to still live my life and be active,” he says.

Key takeaway: Find the right doctor for your situation, one who makes you feel positive about the possible outcome of the surgery.

With his shoulder replaced in June 2011 and his hip later that year in November, DeHaan had a fresh start. His hip recovery was much easier than his shoulder recovery. The shoulder took two to three months to heal, whereas he was up walking around the same day of his hip replacement, and with the help of physical therapy, swung his leg over a horse only three weeks after that hip surgery.

“Before, the pain in my hip was enough to depress me by the end of a day,” he says. “It was hard just to get around. Now, I don’t even think about any of it. I’ve had almost zero pain since having those replacements.”

DeHaan is still very active, driving in vintage-car road races, playing racquetball, and competing at cutting events. “When I’m on a cutting horse, I hold onto the horn with my right arm, tucking that arm firmly into my side. It needs to stay steady and solid, and it does.”

New Knee, Two New Hips, Still Reining
Darlyne Woodward, age 73, of Carbondale, Colorado, operates Skyline Ranch, a boarding, training, and breeding facility in the Rocky Mountains. She started riding in her 40s and has been riding reining horses for decades.

Credit: Photo courtesy of Darlyne Woodward

In Woodward’s case, the need for new joints crept into her life through arthritis. “I didn’t realize anything was really wrong until I saw a video of myself walking out of the show pen, limping,” she says. “Everybody around me was used to seeing me walk like that, but it surprised me. I was about 60 when I noticed that.

“I let myself think it wasn’t a big deal, and coped with it,” she continues. “Then my right knee started aching and was unable to move freely. I had to actually manually unstick it. I was taking arthritis and pain medication, but also had the knee injected with hyaluronic acid. I got injections three times, but each time, the results would disappear faster.”

That’s when Woodward realized she needed a more permanent solution.

She had her first replacement surgery on her right knee in October 2012 at age 70. “That was a tough recovery with physical therapy and a long rehab,” she confides. But eventually, Woodward’s replaced knee was pain-free, with only one lingering riding-related issue. “I had a hard time putting splint and bell boots on my horse,” she explains. “Ordinarily, I’d kneel down for that job, but resorted to bending at the waist and having quite a reach. I can kneel on that knee replacement, but it’s uncomfortable, and I prefer not to. After a few months, I found I couldn’t swing my leg over my saddle. I needed help to move my leg over my horse.”

It was her right hip. She tried pain medication but found no relief. One day she found herself unable to lift her right leg over her horse to dismount. She had her right hip replaced in October 2013, one year after her knee replacement. She found recovery relatively easy compared to her knee surgery.

“I did all the physical therapy I was supposed to, and followed the doctor’s directions,” she shares. “About three weeks in, I was able to ride again and gradually got back to doing reining maneuvers.”

Key takeaway: Follow your doctor’s orders for a complete, successful recovery. No skipping therapy sessions!

A year later, when her left hip caused her pain, her doctor advised her to replace it, too. A few weeks after surgery, Woodward was back in the saddle.

“I still ride every day and show my reiners,” she says. “I compete primarily in Colorado, but go out of state occasionally, too. I still sometimes need a little help getting my leg over my horse, but I’m completely pain-free in my replaced joints. I get up each day, go to the barn and ride. And for that, I’m thankful.”

Two New Knees, Still Recuperating, Still Helping Horses
Sharon Gilbert, 58, of Lafayette, Colorado, has ridden all her life in a variety of disciplines. As an adult, she acquired her “once-in-a-lifetime horse,” Manassis, a Quarter Horse-Trakehner cross. Manassis helped Gilbert take her riding to a whole new level, and they enjoyed years of companionship in the arena and on the trail.

Credit: Photo courtesy of Sharon Gilbert Sharon Gilbert

Riding isn’t Gilbert’s only passion. She was also an avid skier and whitewater rafter, plus a riding instructor. Her highly active life eventually caught up with her knees. “I couldn’t walk through the grocery store, couldn’t go for a hike, and couldn’t ride without twisting my body because my knees hurt,” she says. “It hurt to carry a saddle to my horse, and mounting was difficult from any height.”

After one particularly long day giving lessons at the Colorado Therapeutic Riding Center, Gilbert went home in the worst pain she’d ever experienced. “My arthritis and the bone-on-bone condition of my knees didn’t respond to shots or other therapies, and I ended up having to retire from teaching in the therapeutic-riding environment,” she says.

“My knees simply weren’t up to the task anymore.” Still committed to the cause, she took a desk job as program manager for the American Hippotherapy Association, Inc.

In 2011 at age 54, Gilbert had her first replacement surgery on her left knee. She toughed out a painful and difficult recovery, complicated by pain medications that made her too sick to continue to take them, yet unable to undergo therapy without them. “I didn’t get on a horse until two years after that first surgery, and it was a much more emotional than physical experience,” she says.

Key takeaway: Commit to getting back in the saddle, but understand that everyone’s situation is different. Your return to riding could take longer and be more emotionally challenging than you expected.

“Even though I had a new left knee, my right knee still impaired my balance and motion, not only when riding but in my daily routine.”

In September 2015, Gilbert had her second knee replaced. She was determined to have a better experience that time around. “For my 2015 surgery, my surgeon, his team, and I were much better prepared,” she shares. “We had a plan for a different type of pain medication, and now I’m having a much easier, faster, less painful recovery.”

As of this writing, Gilbert hadn’t been horseback yet. Volunteer work has kept her close to horses and encouraged her to get back in the saddle. “Working and volunteering at Colorado Horse Rescue has given me the incentive to work toward riding again,” she confirms. “Horses cared for here, if capable of carrying a rider, benefit from consistent riding, which prepares them for successful and productive lives with adopters. It’ll be an exciting return to riding when it happens later this spring.”

[READ: Tips to Keep Riding Midlife & Beyond]

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