INTERVIEW: Michael Muir, Champion Horseman & Founding Director of Access Adventure – “Challenging the Limits of Disability”
MICHAEL MUIR, born in 1952, is the great-grandson of conservationist, philosopher, and Sierra Club Founder John Muir. At age 15, Michael learned he had Multiple Sclerosis, or MS, a disease that causes degeneration of the nervous system. Instead of being defeated by the diagnosis, he was emboldened to set out on new adventures, and to help people of limited mobility to explore new terrain, both out in nature and within themselves. At the center of Michael’s extraordinary story is the horse. Or rather, horses. Lots of them.
Horses have played a starring role in your life. Did your love for them begin with one horse in particular?
The day I was born (March 18, 1952) my family had already acquired a famously cantankerous Shetland/Thoroughbred cross pony that I grew up with. We also went on annual pack trips in the High Sierras with horses and mules. I was particularly taken with an Appaloosa named “Dan.”
You were diagnosed with MS at age 15. How were you involved with horses until then?
In 1965 at the age of 13, I acquired the first horses of my own. I sold sheep from my 4-H project and bought a pregnant Appaloosa mare with a filly by her side. My second mare was also in foal with a filly at foot. My breeding career was already in full swing during high school.
As a competitive horseman, and still a teenager, it must have been hard to bear such medical news. Do you remember how you reacted when you first learned you would be living with MS?
My mother is known as Cleopatra (the Queen of Denial) so the downside of my medical future was not discussed. I, too, have an optimistic nature. My initial diagnosis was “spinal myelitis,” or as one doctor later put it “singular sclerosis, it’s not multiple until it happens again.” My treatment was the standard for MS at that time. I relied on one particular nurse to give me accurate information about what was going on with my body, and what the future might hold. Despite being profoundly affected by my first bout with MS, I always assumed I would get better. I was highly motivated to get out of the hospital and back to my stable.
Relapsing/Remitting MS does just that. I was paralyzed below the neck at first and slowly recovered over the course of about six months. It was many years before I was so strongly affected by MS again. There were subtler forms of weakness, fatigue and depression in play over the course of my life. I am no longer relapsing/remitting and my current diagnosis is secondary progressive MS. I continue to maintain a good quality of life.
Horses have been a powerful force for good. My life is richer having them in it.
To stay with this moment for one more question, what would you tell a young person diagnosed with a degenerative disease today? What was the most vital idea to hold onto as you took in your diagnosis, or what most helped you realize that your life was still there to be fully embraced?
I have said before that the worst disability is a bad attitude. I have shocked people by saying there are advantages to having MS. From a young age I have not deferred my dreams. I didn’t wait to retire to pursue my passion for horses. I found my life’s work as a teenager. I was never conservative about any opportunity that came my way, eventually traveling all over the world with my horses, enjoying lots of grand adventures.
I would tell a young person to always focus on what is possible and not on what has been lost. Life isn’t always fair. Some bad things we cannot change. But each of us has an opportunity to pursue, study and engage in things that are interesting to us. Our lives don’t always turn out the way we imagined but there are different paths that lead to where you want to go.
After you learned you had MS, you continued to lead a staggeringly active life as a competitive horseman and even as a breeder of champion racehorses. Could you tell us about some highlights of your early career? Does any racing record or event stand out as one you’ve most savored?
I went to the University of California at Davis thinking I might become a veterinarian. I realized I was already doing what I wanted to do with horses. I didn’t want to work with sick or injured horses. I wanted to breed and compete with them. I took a “leave of absence” (still on it!) to work with a young trainer in Santa Rosa. I had already traveled to Texas (skipping school) to breed my best mare. We showed the mare to an undefeated season and sold her foal for a world-record auction price. This success fueled my confidence and helped finance my foray into racehorses.
My first great stallion, Apache Double, won 18 races in 21 starts and set 14 track and world records. I bought him from Iola Hatley and later he was syndicated for stallion duty. Apache Double became the first Appaloosa stallion to sire the winners of a million dollars. He became the first multi-million dollar sire and led the list of leading stallions for many years. Apache Double appears in the pedigree of many of my Stonewall Sporthorses today.
At the National Appaloosa Show in Australia in 1980 (with 2,400 entries it was the largest horse show of any kind in the Southern Hemisphere) my horses won Grand Champion Senior Stallion, Grand Champion Junior Stallion, Grand Champion Senior Mare, and Champion Mare and Foal. We really cleaned up!
When Multiple Sclerosis began to take a serious toll on your ability to ride, you turned to driving horses instead. What
inspired you to consider driving as an alternative to riding? Was there already a movement afoot in the U.S. to encourage disabled equestrians to pursue driving?
It is just my nature that when one door closes in my life I look for another to open. It didn’t seem like a tragedy to me that I hung up my saddle. Driving is very challenging, exciting and fun. I was introduced to an organization promoting driving for people with disabilities and went for it. The organization was United States Driving for the Disabled, Inc. (And, after 17 years out of the saddle, an Access Adventure volunteer therapist, Tineke Jacobsen got me riding again).
Did you find yourself involved in a whole new horse world as driving became more important to you? Does driving require special kinds of horses? Is there a different ‘horse culture’ around driving as opposed to riding?
Combined driving is a very exciting facet of horsemanship. It is the driving equivalent of the Olympic Sport of Three-Day Eventing. The sport is huge in Europe and America’s East Coast. Interest is rapidly growing out West. I spent a year training in Southern Pines, North Carolina, the heart of the driving world in the United States.
Most kinds of horses can be driven, from ponies to drafts. My personal preference is driving Warmbloods, especially my homegrown Stonewall Sporthorses.
There are more older and disabled folks involved with driving versus riding. There are some great competitors in Europe well into their eighties. When I won a bronze medal for pair driving in Great Britain I received the award from Prince Phillip. He is still an avid driver, well into his eighties.
Named 4 times to Team USA, you have earned driving medals and championships in Austria, France, Germany, and Great Britain. As a world-class horse driver, could you describe what it feels like to drive rather than ride horses? And what about numbers of horses: is driving eight horses anything like driving one or two?
A driver develops a unique and more tenuous connection to his horse or horses than a rider. We only have our voice, our hands and the touch of a whip to communicate. There is an element of magic in successfully driving teams of horses. It takes a great deal of careful preparation to do it well. And yes, it is much more difficult to drive eight horses than one or two.
Since we have some Hollywood folks on our team of riders, I can’t help taking advantage of this rare opportunity to ask a champion horse driver: Charlton Heston’s chariot-driving scenes in the epic 1959 film, Ben-Hur. Convincing?
I don’t think he did any of the stunt driving, and I think a number of horses were hurt in the making of that film. Driving can be very dangerous, especially at speed.
In 2001, you and other equestrians with disabilities completed the remarkable 3,000-mile Horsedrawn Journey Across America. You drove wheelchair-supporting carriages from Mission San Diego de Alcalá clear over to Washington D.C. Why did you begin the journey at the mission in San Diego? How long did the expedition take and, briefly, what was your route?
We started the Horsedrawn Journey Across America at the Mission San Diego where my ancestors arrived in California in 1849. These included my great-great-grandparents and their two year old daughter who grew up to marry John Muir. We followed in reverse the migration of my family that arrived from Scotland to the Colony of Virginia in 1732. They traveled Westward over the generations to arrive in California. We followed the old Butterfield Trail and the Southern Overland Trail first scouted by Captain Fremont. My great-great-great-grandfather and his bride were married by the Justice of the Peace, Davey Crockett and traveled with him from Tennessee to Texas and founded the town of Honey Grove. Relatives still live there today. We used old family letters and diaries to map our route across the country. Our trip took over nine months to complete.
More about this stunning transcontinental accomplishment of 2001. Could you tell us about one or two incidents on the trail that have stayed with you?
We made camp one night in a remote part of the Sonoran Desert, going to sleep to the serenade of coyotes ringing the rim-rock canyon. In the morning we discovered a very old, weathered, wooden sign with “Butterfield Trail” still legible. We were on the route walked by my great-great-grandmother with a two-year-old toddler and a one-year-old babe in arms. We felt a powerful connection to history that day.
Was the 2001 journey a life-changing experience? How did you feel when you reached Washington D.C. with your fellow travelers?
The Horsedrawn Journey Across America was intended to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. My international crew and I were so profoundly moved and changed by this experience that we didn’t want it to end. We made plans to travel across Northern Europe. In 2002, we performed at an international competition in France, then traveled through Belgium, the Netherlands and into Germany for the World Carriage Driving Championship for Drivers with Disabilities. Our team was proving by example that disability does not mean inability.
I read in a bio about you that, in 2003, you and ”Cindy Goff, a paraplegic horsewoman from Kentucky, drove a carriage, powered by Michael’s horse Domino, from Indiana to the Gulf of Mexico along the same route John Muir traveled in 1867.” Did you sense a special connection to your great-grandfather, John Muir, as you and Cindy Goff made this trip? Did you gain any surprising insights into him while following his footsteps in your carriage?
We used the diary of John Muir’s first great wilderness adventure, “The Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf” to map our route. Following my great-grandfather’s footsteps and reading about his experiences along the way created a special bond of kinship. We often felt close to him as we enjoyed our own adventure.
In 2005, after retiring as the President of United States Driving for the Disabled Inc., you founded Access Adventure, a non-profit devoted to helping people of limited mobility to challenge themselves and to discover wild, open spaces in ways they never imagined possible. Horses remained central in this new endeavor. Could you tell us a bit about Access Adventure?
Access Adventure is designed to be a regional model of services for people with disabilities. Our mission is to enrich their lives and those of other underserved members of our community by providing outdoor recreation, open space access, education and therapy through a working partnership with horses.
Access Adventure operates on the Solano Land Trust’s Rush Ranch, near Suisun City and Fairfield, California. What is the atmosphere like on the ranch? When someone of limited mobility first arrives there without any prior experience of horses, can the situation seem intimidating?
The Rush Ranch is 2070 acres of preserved open space, never to be developed. It is a historic horse farm, originally more than 5,000 acres, that retains a great deal of the original atmosphere. We are off the grid, generating our own power with solar and wind. Despite the rustic feel of the place, we are well equipped to meet the special needs of people with disabilities. It’s a welcoming place.
What do new visitors to the Access Adventure ranch generally most enjoy about their first contact with horses?
Our horses are remarkably gentle and seem to be intuitive about the special needs of people with disabilities. It is empowering to partner with them to increase our mobility and enjoy the natural world.
As the Founding Director of Access Adventure for some years now, would you share with us a story of how horseback or horse-drawn adventure has changed the life of a young person living with limited mobility?
We often meet people profoundly struggling with the shattering experiences of a crippling injury or a devastating diagnosis of disease that will alter the course of their life. We teach them not to think about what they have lost, but what is possible to do with what you have left. It doesn’t have to be a tragedy because you cannot walk anymore. We will teach you how to roll with abandon. Life can still be full and rich.
A beautiful young woman who was a show jumper of considerable ability came to us after a catastrophic swimming accident that left her quadriplegic. She wanted to ride again. We gently guided her away from getting back in the saddle, and instead to learn to drive horses. She has never looked back and is now a leading contender for the next World Carriage Driving Championship.
A young man with a traumatic brain injury has rebuilt his life with the reins in his hands. He has learned to speak the names of the horses he drives, and revels in the power in his hands as he trots through the countryside. He especially enjoys taking other people with disabilities along on his adventures. His mission is “to heal the world”. Link to raising Mario twice.
Horses are increasingly recognized for their ability to help people heal or move ahead with their lives. “Hippotherapy” has given a leg up to troubled teens, addicts, and battered or abused people, as well as those suffering from trauma, anxiety, depression, and more. With all of your work in this area, and with your lifelong experience of horses, how do you explain the profound therapeutic effects of horses on humans?
I have always believed that there is an element of magic in the art of driving horses. There is no other way to explain our tenuous control over these immensely powerful animals. Horses seem to have a special affinity for people with disabilities. We are empowered by the bond created between us. When you cannot walk, and horses help you to experience the world, this remarkable partnership enriches people’s lives.
What do you personally find most rewarding about your work with
horses and people?
I am lucky in that I have found a way to take my passion for horses and find a way to do some good with that. Breeding and competing with horses can be a selfish, ego-driven business. We have found a way to give something back to a community of people in need.
Access Adventure is partly funded by the sale of Stonewall Sporthorses, beautiful warmbloods that you have bred for many years. How did you develop this breed, and what makes the Stonewall Sporthorse unique?
The Stonewall Sporthorse descends through the generations from some of my original horses. Over the course of my disability, my life with horses has evolved from being a rider to a driver to sharing my world with other people with disabilities. The evolution of my horses reflects the special requirements of a good, reliable, powerful carriage horse. The unique spotted hides that are our trademark are a gift from my original mare.
You and others from Access Adventure will be joining The California Mission Ride team in Sonoma. What do you most look forward to on the mission ride?
As a native Californian, I enjoy the living history of the California missions. My family has a connection with the Mission San Diego de Alcala dating back to 1849. I always enjoy any opportunity to go back “on the road” (horsedrawn).
Do you have a favorite food for dinner when you’re on the trail?
I am an old-school horseman. The needs of the animals always come first. My crew will tell you that I am pretty slack about meeting the food requirements of the human members of the team. We appreciate anything good to eat when we are on the road. Fortunately, our unusual experiences win us a few invitations to dinner.
As a Californian who’s logged many a day of horse travel, including
at the mission in San Diego and Mission San Antonio de Padua, what would you say about the time you’ve spent with horses in and around the state’s missions? What seems different about visiting the missions with horses as opposed to, say, reaching them by motorized vehicle?
I especially enjoy the historic setting of the Mission San Antonio, very little changed from the time that it was built. Traveling there with horses reminds us that the missions were built a day’s journey (horsedrawn or ridden) apart.
Among the 21 missions of California, do you have a favorite?
My favorite is the Mission San Antonio de Padua. We try to visit there every spring for the most beautiful wildflower show in all of California.
The life and writings of your great-grandfather John Muir have had an immeasurable influence on the American
landscape, and even on the way people view the natural world. How would you describe his influence on your own experience of nature?
John Muir was raised by a dour and incredibly strict Scottish father. My great-grandfather raised his own children with a much gentler hand. His influence is felt through the generations of my family. We were never discouraged from finding our own way in the world, however far off the beaten path that may take us. He instilled in his family a great love of the natural world that carries on through the generations today.
If you could share John Muir’s company on a horse-drawn journey today, where would you most love to travel with him? Would it be to a place he knew well?
It would be a grand adventure to share his great love of Alaska (preferably not when it is snowing!)
Could you tell us about some of your exciting horse-drawn travel plans for the future?
As I get older, my greatest joy is sharing my horsedrawn adventures with people who are struggling with mobility challenges. It doesn’t matter so much where we go, so long as we are going somewhere. We intend to enjoy every aspect of life, with the help of our working partners, the horses we love.
This interview was completed by August 18, 2012, and is being posted at the earliest opportunity on the trail… August 22 in San Rafael, where The California Mission Ride Team is camping on the grounds of the beautiful Elks Lodge. Thank you Michael Muir for your prized participation in our Trail Blog interview series about people we’ll meet on the trail in 2012.
Michael Muir and equestrians from Access Adventure joined The California Mission Ride from its starting point in Sonoma on September 18. Visit the California Mission Ride on Facebook for pictures and updates! http://www.facebook.com/pages/The-California-Mission-Ride/316668341721378
Find out more about MICHAEL MUIR on YouTube:
For a wonderful, short video presentation of Michael Muir’s work with Access Adventure, click here [link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wTX3Kk1ltk4]. The video is introduced as follows: “When John Muir first arrived in California by ship, he was bewildered and overwhelmed by the raucous energy of San Francisco in 1869. He asked a passerby the quickest way out of the city. “Well, where do you want to go?” the stranger inquired. “Anywhere Wild!, said Muir. John Muir’s great-grandson, Michael Muir, is blazing a new trail into the wilderness, opening a path to be traveled by people with disabilities. Michael has lived with MS since he was fifteen, and understands the challenges people face.”