Wearing a helmet saved my life!
Some days are just another day at the barn. Some days and experiences can change your life. Here is my story, and the reason I’ll never ride without helmet again.
I was a very confident rider at the age of 22. I flew from Germany to Florida to ride horses and prepare them for shows; I thought I had it all under control. I would only wear a helmet when I would go on a trail ride or jump. One day I was asked to ride a younger horse with some training difficulties. The owner gave me a helmet that luckily fit me. The ride ended after not even a 10 minute trot, with me landing headfirst on the hard, dry grass/dirt ground. I heard a crack in my neck but was more focused on trying not to be run over by the horse. A soup and pain pill later I just fell asleep and woke up the next day with a crooked head. Another day, two hospital visits, and many tests later, I got my diagnosis: a right sided occipital cervical joint fracture dislocation. I had BROKEN MY NECK! The only thing that prevented the fracture and dislocation being more severe which could have resulted in paralysis or death, was wearing a helmet.
After calling my mother and texting some close friends in Germany I immediately went into an 8 hour surgery – don’t worry I asked the doctor if he was experienced with these kind of surgeries. I lost a lot of blood and was very lucky to survive first the fall and then the surgery.
Post-surgery recovery fun!
The first three days were the worst. I was in the most severe pain of my life – but not dead. I didn’t know where I was and hallucinated about whether or not I had actually had the surgery because of the pain I was in. I constantly had some kind of needle in my arm for either a blood test, morphine shots every 1-1.5 hours (as far as I remember) or something else to keep me going. They had taken a piece of my hip bone and placed it into my neck to fix everything up, supported with about eight titanium screws and a wired bridge system to fuse occipital down to C3. A fancy neck collar and two long scars, one on the back of my head and the other on my back, rounded it all up.
Two weeks later I had my stitches removed and the doctor told me I would not ever be able to ride again. I laughed. He corrected himself and said you are not allowed to ride ever again. I laughed again. “You might know my neck inside out but you don’t know me” was my thought.
I flew back home to Germany right after that doctor’s visit. Every movement hurt a lot through my whole body but I was very grateful to wake up in the morning and be able to feel my hands and feet. After a painful process to get out of bed, I was the happiest person on earth to be able to decide what I would do with my day. Like any other 22-year-old, I didn’t have many options, but I did have some – I was not paralyzed.
After about four months I was allowed to take the neck collar off. I moved to Hungary for school, which luckily distracted me from horses. It wasn’t until almost one year later that I sat on a horse again. I just wanted to see what it felt like to be up there again. I had a lot of time to think about how it would be and if I could ever ride.
It was three years later that I picked up riding on a regular basis. For about six months I rode an older lazy Friesian three times a week and took lessons with my old trainer, who I trust a lot. The most the Friesian would do was speed up his trot if something looked scary to him. And yes, the first couple of times he did that my heart rate went into race mode. I observed where the birds would fly and listened for all possible noises from cars and tractors that could spook him. I then worked with him from the ground a lot to get to know him better. I slowly regained my confidence. I told myself if you want to ride again, you need to get over this fear. I won’t be able to be a good rider if I am always scared of what could possibly happen.
At that time, I traveled a lot for work so could not ride consistently, but the first six months with the Friesian helped me to regain my confidence. It was like building a new foundation. I then spent many weekends riding dressage horses at a sales barn whenever I had the time for it.
Six years after the accident – about one year ago – I moved to Boston. Not for riding, but for my husband. I took this as an opportunity to take a break from the rush of life and focus on horses and my riding for a while. I was lucky to find a trainer who has a great eye for the biomechanics of the horse and rider. I worked at his barn several times a week and took lessons for almost two months. I focused on myself, my confidence, and the feeling of the horse’s movements. Then the opportunity came up to rehab a horse that had been on stall rest for 15 months. A challenge and an opportunity at the same time.
After a long 12 month rehab with many heart racing but confidence building moments, I was able to successfully show 3rd and 4th level with the horse I rehabbed. I felt very accomplished and proud of him and myself! We were together and at the best we could have possibly been, considering we were both coming back from a traumatic injury.
What did I learn from this experience?
First of all I, never ride without a helmet. If I work with a horse that I don’t know, is young, or is in a rehab program, I even wear a helmet while working with the horse from the ground. Breaking my neck taught me to listen more to the horse and develop a more sensitive feeling for the horse’s behavior, and after all I think I became a better horseperson and rider. Horses are not machines and their behavior can never be 100% predictable, even with so called “bombproof horses.” Finally, I learned that you should never feel too comfortable in what you are doing just because you are in a routine and doing it every day.