Chickasaw equestrian riding tall in the saddle despite health challenges
Last updated 5/17/2023 at 2:30pm
KELLYVILLE, Okla.-Brianna Lytle is a rare breed.
The 18-year-old Chickasaw is the type of person who discovers their passion early in life and forges a path to pursue it, despite any obstacles. She is living the Mark Twain quote: "Find a job you enjoy doing and you will never have to work a day in your life."
An equestrian at heart, Miss Lytle took up barrel racing when she was 9 years old. Almost every weekend, she and her dad, Travis, loaded her horse, Cimm, and the trio travelled the Oklahoma youth rodeo circuit.
Miss Lytle has been a horse aficionado for as long as she can recall.
"We've always had horses. As far as I can remember, since I was a little kid, that's all I wanted to do, work with horses," she said.
Through the years, more horses were added to the stables on the family's land in Creek County and Miss Lytle's path was set. She wanted to find a way to have a career working with horses.
But, as she grew older, nagging back pain not only made riding horses difficult, but simple tasks such as walking also proved painful.
"I remember being at a weeklong rodeo in Pawhuska and having to stop walking, squat down and hold my back because of the pain," she said.
The teen brushed it off as muscle soreness and fatigue.
A few months later, Miss Lytle began experiencing sharp pain every time she mounted her horse, which eventually morphed into constant pain.
Doctor visits to find the source of the discomfort were fruitless for a few years, as her pain was shrugged off as growing pains and cramps. Then, when Miss Lytle was 15 years old, she visited the Sapulpa Indian Health Center and was swiftly diagnosed with scoliosis, an abnormal lateral curvature of the spine. An exam and X-rays confirmed her spine was twisted like a willow branch.
"My spine was at a 73-degree curve," she said.
Corrective surgery was the most logical solution, even though Miss Lytle understood it was a difficult procedure from which to recover, and riding horses might not be possible.
"It was definitely something we were scared of, and my dad was really scared that I might not be able to ride."
She underwent spinal fusion surgery at Tulsa Bone and Joint Hospital in 2020.
"My whole spine is rods, and there are countless screws. My dad asked how many screws I had, and they said, 'Well, we had to go to Home Depot halfway through (the surgery),' so they used a lot," she chuckled.
After a two-week recovery, Miss Lytle was back in the saddle, pain free.
She briefly rode a friend's horse around the arena without a problem.
"It was an easy surgery. I didn't even have any physical therapy. I guess it was God," she said.
Being free of pain made her realize just how much agony she had endured in the years leading up to the surgery.
She waited about two more months to ride again and found her posture in the saddle straighter and taller than before the surgery.
"I was always slouched in the saddle, and we never knew why. I remember I would take group pictures and my grandma would ask, 'Why do you slouch over like that?' I would say, 'It's just how I stand.' Looking back, it's because my back was at a 70-degree angle."
Following the trail
A little more than two years following the surgery, Miss Lytle is busy finishing high school courses and working at the Bar XIX Ranch in Glenpool.
It was at the ranch where she was introduced to equine massage techniques. The couple who owns the ranch, Austin and Kora Meier, serve as her mentors, teaching her equine therapy and training.
Equine therapy involves a more holistic approach to healing, she explained. Equine sports massage therapy is the therapeutic application of hands-on massage techniques, which can increase circulation, relax muscle spasms, enhance muscle tone and add to range of motion in high performance horses.
Miss Lytle was so intrigued with the hands-on therapy she began researching how to earn her certification in the craft.
She recently completed virtual classes at an equine therapy school and spent two days at the Purcell, Oklahoma, campus, passing her certification test.
Miss Lytle is thankful for the Chickasaw Nation education programs, including the career technology program, which assists her with tuition and helps make her goal a reality.
She is mindful of the historic connection between the Chickasaw people and traditional holistic medicine and her role in keeping that tradition alive for the next generation.
"It's amazing. I have always been intrigued by our ancestors and what they went through. I feel like it all resorts back to the basics. They didn't have veterinarians to fix their horses. I think it's so cool now; I am able to share my story. I am so thankful to be here now to shine a light on it.
"I love the rewards of seeing the natural ways work. Horses are athletes, but when they are not performing it's because they are hurting in some way. When you pinpoint where they are hurting and when you fix it and let them run, they realize they can use that part of the body. It's very rewarding seeing how the horse reacts," Miss Lytle said.
She related a story about a horse that needed therapy because he couldn't turn his neck to the right.
"Once we worked on him and he could, he stood for about 20 minutes with his head turned, looking to the right. It's really cool to watch them realize they can use their body.
"There were natural ways before doctors and vets came. It might take you a little longer. You might have to massage them for a few days, but you will see the result."
Miss Lytle said her Chickasaw lineage comes through her dad, Travis Lytle, and her grandmother, Frances Loftin. She credits her dad for helping her pursue her dreams and offering limitless support and unconditional love. Her mother died when she was 10 years old, and her father raised her on his own most of her life.
"My dad is my best friend. He is my number one supporter," she said. "He told me if I put in the work, he would do anything he could to make it happen for me. So, I have put in the hard work and now it's paying off."
A deep faith in God also abides in Miss Lytle.
"I truly believe if I just put my faith in God, he has brought me all these amazing things. I feel like he is what's helped me get to where I am."
Miss Lytle's long-range goal is to earn her chiropractor's license and administer chiropractic care to horses.
In the meantime, she is shifting from barrel racing to learning to rope and hopes to compete in breakaway calf roping someday. Breakaway roping is a fast-paced variation of calf roping, but the calf is not thrown and tied. In addition, she is training a new horse. One that is learning the ropes, too.