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Physical therapist and horse lover Wes Rau

As a physical therapist and horse lover, Wes Rau finds satisfaction in knowing he can make an impact for both the animal and the rider.

by Lauren Davis Baker, for The Bulletin Special Projects

Wes Rau is checking out the patrons of Wild Ride Brewing as they wander into the Redmond establishment in search of beer and a bite. He looks patrons up and down. As an experienced physical therapist, he can’t help assessing posture and gait as he people watches. By force of habit he scans for visual cues that indicate how well the bodies he seeing passing by are functioning. Rau is all about keeping bodies moving — running smoothly and efficiently — making it possible for his clients to keep doing the things they love to do.

From the Redmond office of Step and Spine Physical Therapy, Rau endeavors to help his clients achieve their goals by improving strength and mobility. From skiers to cyclists and from runners to golfers, physical therapy enables a wide range of athletes to remain active as long as possible.

Now in his 60s, Rau is well aware of the challenge of staying fit and healthy despite the ravages of time. He is meeting that challenge head-on.

“I want to be an aging competitive athlete,” he said, noting that his personal goal is to compete in a 100-mile competitive endurance horseback ride.

As an equestrian hiself, Rau has a special fondness for working with horse people.

“They’re easy,” he said. “They understand the relationship between movement and health.”

That understanding likely comes in part from knowing that movement is essential for horses to maintain their physical and mental well-being. Horse owners know that if a horse stops moving, every major organ in his body is effected, including the large intestine. If the intestines shut down, the condition can be serious — even life-threatening. So, horses are encouraged to keep moving within reason, through injury, illness and even surgical recovery.

While lack of movement may not be as life-threatening for humans, it significantly affects their quality of life.

“Wes helped me when I first started battling lower back issues,” said 81-year-old Dolly DeCair. “After my hip replacement, he had me back on a horse within six months.”

Getting back in the saddle was important to DeCair, an accomplished endurance rider who has competed in six Tevis Cup Trail Rides — a grueling 100-mile route that stretches from Salt Lake City to Sacramento, the very ride that Rau has set his own sights on.

“He’s been trying to keep me going,” DeCair said, reflecting on her work with Rau. “He’s not the kind of person to tell you to give up. He wants you to keep moving, keep doing what you love.”

As part of his practice, Rau manipulates muscles and joints to restore functionality and address imbalances. He then prescribes specific strengthening and flexibility exercises for clients to do at home or in the gym. Common problems are weak core and pelvic floor muscles, as well as overly tight hip capsules.

“I’m a fan of CrossFit classes,as long as you drop your ego at the door and don’t make it a competition,” Rau said, reflecting on the workouts that use a mix of techniques to restore and even increase agility, strength, and balance.

As he helps his human clients maintain their mobility, Rau takes heart knowing his work will benefit their horses as well.

While it may seem unimaginable that a 1,000-pound animal would be sensitive to the weight of a person, the reality is that a rider’s position in the saddle can be an asset or a liability for their horse.

“If you’re out of balance, you affect the horse,” Rau explained. “Imagine wearing a crappy backpack with 100 pounds of weight in it. That’s what it feels like to the horse if the rider is stiff and immobile in the saddle. Horses are not machines, they’re made of muscles, ligaments, and joints just like we are.

“When I get my patients functional, they can communicate with the horse again,” Rau said.

Fitness through progressive training has been an inherent part of Rau’s life for many years. Before becoming involved in competitive endurance horseback riding, Rau worked year-round to train his with his 40-dog team for the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race — an approximately 1,000-mile endurance race held annually in Alaska. Each dog was developed to peak performance for the demands of the competition.

Now, Rau uses a similar labor of love to bring rescue horses back from the brink of starvation and neglect, gradually transforming them into athletes capable of competing in 25 and 50-mile trail competitions, with a long-term goal of seeing them complete a 100-mile race. The rehabilitation of each horse takes slow, careful conditioning, but the results are satisfying and measurable.

Through nutrition and thoughtful training Rau’s once sway-backed Arabian gelding is now a superior athlete that successfully completed five races last year.

Rau is not alone in his affinity toward horses and his particular interest in the mutually beneficial results physical therapy can have on the powerful creatures and their riders. Board Certified Orthopedic Specialist Siiri Berg, who works out of Step and Spine’s Bend office, trains and rides alongside Rau.

As colleagues and friends, the two are looking forward to spring as the snow melts enough for them to saddle up and hit the trails. Like Rau, Berg has her sights set on the year’s upcoming endurance races, and specifically the 100-mile Tevis Cup trail ride.

With their dedication to developing the core strength of their horses, special attention to their own fitness, as well as a little bit of luck, the two will be destined to celebrate at the finish line, right along with Dolly DeCair.

For the complete edition of the March 2017 Ageless Magazine click here.

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