Friday, April 4, 2008

Back in the Saddle Again

This is the third and final installment of recounting my riding accident. I'm sharing my experience in hopes that it'll help other horse lovers.

For the first couple of months after I was out of the hospital my days were filled with doctor appointments experienced through a fog of narcotics. They made me so lethargic that I had to also take another medication normally prescribed for people with narcolepsy just so that I could keep my eyes open during daylight hours. And yet I still wanted to visit my horses. Since I was on blood thinners I was cautioned not to ride, groom or handle a horse for fear I'd get knocked down and suffer internal bleeding. The only horse I was allowed to be near was Penny, my sweetheart of a palomino. Even though I couldn't imagine riding-- honestly, my mind was so hazy I really couldn't imagine it-- I wanted to be near horses. I think that was probably because throughout my life, when times were tough emotionally (bad day at school, bad day at work, etc.), horses gave me solace.

As my broken bones knitted together, I got stronger and my doctors reduced my pain meds. They eventually also started doing spinal nerve blocks, which helped a lot. That also put me on the path to getting the stimulator device implanted.

Over time, I worked through the conflicting emotions I had about riding. I knew I wasn't going to show again. That wasn't as hard for me to accept as you might think. I'd pretty much become burned out on showing since I'd been doing it for 3 decades or so. But of course, this wasn't the way I wanted it to end. But what exactly would I do on the back of a horse? And would I be fearful?

In the meantime, I had to learn to cope with my injuries. One of my doctors told me, "You need to accept that you have a disability now." He was referring to my right hand and arm, because no one believed that I was ever going to regain much use of it again.

But then, they didn't know my inner strength. I am not only a very competitive person, but I don't give up easily, either. Once, when I was about 15 or 16, I had major oral surgery. I had a row of stitches inside my upper lip and behind my front teeth, and my mouth was horribly sore and swollen. A day or two later was a large show, and I was determined to compete in some of the junior jumper classes aboard this little Saddlebred mare I'd been riding. She belonged to a Marine Corps captain, and he always came to watch me compete his cute bay mare. Sure enough, I went to the show, barely able to sip liquids through my swollen lips, and rode like a banshee. I won high ribbons in all of the jumper classes despite my mouthful of sutures. The mare's owner was just amazed and said to me, "Cindy, you'd make a fine Marine!"

So it shouldn't be a surprise that as soon as I got the okay to ride I was saddling up Penny. She stood patiently at the tie post while I struggled with the tack. I couldn't lift my right arm high enough to get the western saddle on her back, so I had to drag a mounting block next to Penny, then drag the saddle to the mounting block, and then slowly inch it up her side and on to her back. Yes, there were people who would've helped me, but I wanted to do it myself. I considered real life to be my physical therapy. The day that I could bridle and saddle her by myself, in just a few minutes time, gave me a great sense of satisfaction. I was proving that doctor wrong. I might have a disability, but it was not going to dictate how I was going to live my life!

With each ride dear Penny Palomino made me realize that I still had a passion for riding. She was so trustworthy to ride and gentle on the ground. Sometimes I would get teary-eyed while riding her, because I came to realize that I could still ride and enjoy horses, although I'd probably be spending more time in a western saddle than I had in the past.

About a year after the accident I underwent the surgery to implant the nerve stimulator. I was told that the surgery was considered to be a success if I had my pain and stiffness relieved 50%. That's about what I got. The blood clots resolved and I finally stopped taking the blood thinners. And I was able to stop the constant use of narcotic pain medicine, so my life overall was improving.

The first horse I rode English was my sister's ex-race horse, Topper. I had trained Topper for my sister when he first came off the track (before I got hurt) so I knew the horse well, which gave me confidence. He is also a very benign goofball, so I felt safe. It wasn't like he was going to suddenly spook and bolt or buck. I remember my mother stood outside the arena at home and watched me ride him She said, "I can't even tell that there's anything wrong with you."

But I could feel what was wrong then, and still is: I simply cannot use my right arm the way that I once could. There is some residual paralysis and that makes my scapula (my shoulder blade) sit at a slightly awkward angle against my back. Even if I could use my arm fully, my scapula hits against my ribs in my back, preventing my arm from having its full range of movement. My right arm functions like it's several inches shorter than my left arm. All of this limits my ability to ride like I used to. Daily barn chores like blanketing a horse, hoisting full feed buckets or mucking a stall are also challenging sometimes. And forget about sticking a crop in my back pocket! I can't get my right hand behind my back to grab it!

I'm sure you're wondering about the fear factor. I mean this truthfully: Aside from the first few weeks of utter terror, where I played "What If I'd Been Paralyzed from the Neck Down," I didn't feel much generalized fear about riding. Instead I had a fear of specific aspects of riding. For example, I didn't want to gallop down to a jump on a green horse. Ever again. I didn't want to ride any horse that I didn't know well. Ever again. And I especially didn't want to ride any horse that was in any way unpredictable. I guess I was minimizing my risks. And why not? I'd been badly hurt on a horse I'd bred and raised and ridden successfully at shows for years. That realization made me extremely wary of merrily climbing onto the back of some unknown creature.

Naturally, some of my family members and friends preferred that I stopped riding completely, including my husband. While he's come to accept that you can only temporarily keep the horsewoman off the horse, he did make me promise that I would NEVER jump a horse again. I knew full well that I couldn't keep that vow. While the list of horses that I'll jump continually grows shorter, jumping-- even if it's over low jumps on an old packer or a lesson horse-- is something that I'm not quite ready to say I'll never do again.

Did I feel fear the first time I cantered down to a jump after my accident? Yes, I did. How did I conquer it? I took a deep breath, exhaled and literally told myself what to do: "Keep the rhythm; Look at the center of the jump; Be soft with your hands." All the skills I knew due by rote memory gave me comfort, but I had to say them outloud to get my body to comply. That, fortunately, is no longer necessary.

Do I have pain nearly every day? Yes. But I know that there are many brave souls out there who also deal with pain on a daily basis, and yet continue to live their lives despite it. Do I occasionally have fear about riding? Yes. That's why I carefully selected Wally and Wyatt. Wally may be obnoxious, but he's had years of professional training and he understands who's in charge. And that would be me. Wyatt is green, but he's not unruly. He's quite well broke, actually; he's just not schooled.

Does anything shake my confidence now when I'm riding? Absolutely! Instead of staying on and riding through a difficult situation, I'm much more apt to hop off and lead my horse past the scary object or longe it a little bit more. I am no longer naive about what can happen to a rider. And yet the pay-off of being around horses keeps me climbing back in the saddle, pain or no pain, stiff right arm or not. Maybe the captain was right. I might really have made a good Marine!


If you'd like to leave a comment, you can click on "comments" below or email me at:


Anonymous said...

How awesome that you stayed positive, and are able to still ride.
And your husband is definately a keeper. After my accident, my husband was also really very grateful that I was going to be okay. I've never seen that protective side of him until then.
I just am not able to get past the fear. My mare that I was hurt on is still the horsey love of my life, and I adore her. I know her very well, but still cant ride her without fear.

Good for you and best wishes!

Nancy said...

Oh my god Cindy, I've had tears in my eyes and goosebumps reading your story.

It's amazing how in a split second, something can happen, and your life changes, and there's no going back to where it was bfore. Everything is before and after. And things are very different.

You are an inspiration to all of us. Sending you a huge nurturing hug!

saddleup said...

After I was badly hurt in a riding accident I promised my husband I'd stop jumping. I found that was an easy promise to keep, since fear pretty much kept me from that anyway. I also promised not to take on any youngsters again, and I haven't. That said, I've found lots of other types of things that I have done with my horses that allow me to enjoy them, and move on past the fear for the most part. But every now and then the fear will rear its ugly head. Sometimes I'm not sure that's a bad thing since it keeps me cautious. Best of luck to you with your new horse and your new, different but hopefully satisfying horse life. Your story is truly inspiring....and I agree that your husband sounds like a great guy.

Anonymous said...

The few,
The proud,
The Horsewoman-Marine!

I haven't had any bad accidents, but when I hadn't been able to ride Sas for two months and was just starting again, her lope was almost like a runaway roller coaster. I was scared to make her do it, for fear that I'd lose control and fall off. All I had was a bicycle helmet, and I was riding in an arena that was humongous (to me), and was still new and strange (I'd just moved to a new barn). Basically, I did the same things you did over your first jump after your accident. Now, Sas is doing much better, and I'm not afraid anymore, either. Still cautious, but not afraid.

You know, you should start a club for the restoration of our horsewoman instincts. You'd be a great leader for it. Call it, "Who's afraid to Ride? Not I!" or something like that.


Anonymous said...

I agree with Sas. We should start that club, as well as the MRL Support Group.

Secret handshakes all around!

But on a serious note, you're a very positive person and an inspiration to me. When my confidence plummeted in '06, I thought of your fall and how you started riding, and that was actually what had me get back on a horse.

Very belated, but thank you so much for that.

Nancy said...

p.s. I got on Leo today - finally the round pen has no snow and ice in it. First time since October - and since all my knee issues. Got a little nervous as we were going to the mounting block - he is only 3, and just very green. Thought to myself - if Cindy can get over her fear - i can do this. Took a deep breath, jumped on, and he was awesome! Just walked around for 10 minutes, but still!

Thanks again for the inspiration! This is my new mantra - if cindy can do it, so can i! :-)

Cindy Hale said...

Oh, I hope you all stay safe! In fact, I hope we ALL stay safe! Maybe one of the lessons I learned is that riding really is a dangerous sport. Let's face it: we're climbing aboard an animal that, regardless of training, is prone to instinctual urges. For example, if something truly frightens a horse, it's getting out of Dodge City--- NOW!

I really appreciate all of the comments and emails I received. It was tough reliving the whole experience once again, but in a way it was therapeutic.

Potato Recipes said...

Good reading thiss post