Kevin Riordan: Fragile on the ground, tall in the saddle

Tina Panna, who was diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritisin kindergarten and who also suffers from osteoporosis, with Mister, a horse she rides regularly for therapy.
Tina Panna, who was diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritisin kindergarten and who also suffers from osteoporosis, with Mister, a horse she rides regularly for therapy. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: April 29, 2013

In the saddle, Tina Panna is on top of the world.

"I feel like a normal person," says the Mullica Hill resident, 41, who rides despite fragile bones, ravaged joints, and chronic pain.

Diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis in kindergarten, "I could sneeze, and something fractures," adds Panna.

At 5, she was told she'd never walk again; later, she was turned down for riding lessons.

"But when someone tells me I can't do something," Panna says, "I say, 'Watch me.' "

I'm doing just that on a delightfully springlike afternoon at Hollyview Farms in Monroeville, where Panna rides a chestnut quarter horse named Mister at least once a week.

"It's freedom. Freedom," Panna says. "My two legs become four."

Instructor Jessica Siford is watching as well. She offers calm yet firm instructions to ensure horse and rider stay in sync.

"You don't have to push him today," she tells Panna, a determined student who took her first lesson in September 2011 and last year brought home a blue ribbon from a riding event at the Dream Park in West Deptford.

"Turn your body," Siford says. "Fix your diagonal."

Panna's bones are brittle due to osteoporosis ("my feet are like Swiss cheese"), making her unable to stand for long. She can drive, but walking is difficult. Her fingers are twisted.

Nevertheless, "she did not want typical therapeutic riding, with people walking on either side of the horse with her," Siford, 35, notes.

As we chat, Mister makes steady circles around the perimeter of the riding arena. Panna rises and falls in her English saddle, shifting her weight, guiding her horse.

It's a fluid, even soothing, rhythm: the synergy of human and beast. "That's a posting trot. Six months ago she didn't have the strength to do it," says Siford, who lives in Bridgeton. "You have no idea how far she has come."

Panna grew up in Laurel Springs and was diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, an incurable autoimmune disorder that primarily damages the joints, in 1976. She's had her ankles fused and her knees, elbows, hips, and one shoulder replaced; her wrists will be next.

But since Panna began riding, "it's almost like she's breaking out of the handcuffs the disease put on her," says Matthew Ramsey, an orthopedic surgeon at the Rothman Institute in Washington Township.

Ramsey and fellow surgeon Jess Lonner, who have taken care of Panna for years, worry their patient will fall off her horse. But the riding itself "has been invaluable," Lonner says.

The disease forced Panna, a 1994 Rowan University graduate who lives with her fiance, to give up a sales career she loved. "I had a wonderful life, and it's gone," she says. "I became stagnant, wheelchair-bound. But I had always wanted to ride."

Siford took her on, "terrified" by her unique circumstances but soon captivated by Panna's spirit. And the teacher, whose students include very young children and senior citizens of all abilities, has picked up some of Panna's wry wit.

"When the surgeons put Tina back together," Siford says, "they put her together to ride a horse."

It's true: On foot, Panna is stooped and seems a bit askew. But in the saddle, her posture is straight, even regal.

Riding is "like a seated workout," Panna says.

Out of the saddle Panna is finding more flexibility, less need for the wheelchair, and a new sense of purpose: She hopes to inspire parents of children with rheumatoid arthritis.

"The fact that I can learn the commands and make him go, and ride him - I can't tell you" what it means, she says, although her welling eyes do.

"Just to sit on him," Panna says. "Even if he didn't move. Just to sit on him lifts me up."

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