After Fancy threw me, I remember her smooth black knees, rough sand rushing up too fast, and hitting the ground hard. I lay with the wind knocked out of me, unaware of the blue roan mare’s location. Blurring horse hooves, sand, and sky, I tried to push myself up but something strong pushed me back down. I should have stayed down.
Four years prior, just after my tenth birthday, I started horseback riding at Woodgate Farm. The owner buys young horses cheap, trains them, and sells them through his hunter/jumper program. The lesson program therefore paired students with untrained, unpredictable horses. Horses arrived with behavioral problems, bad temperaments, or from abusive situations. Many of the younger horses were Off Track Thoroughbreds: young horses pulled right from the track, completely green to general under saddle training. As we trained hunter/jumper horses, often our methods conflicted with their racing training. They had to learn that our weight on the reins now asked for steadiness and slowness rather than power and speed. It was a learning process for everyone involved: horse, rider, and trainer.
Given that I was taught to ride on problem horses, my training was rushed so I could slow the horses’ training down. My trainer Wendy provided a good foundation with horses on the ground and with general stable care, but in the saddle, we focused on the horse. Instead of building a foundation of tools for me to learn and use, I adapted to the horse: I guided young horses over their first jump, pulled spooking horses up from bucking, jumped off and out of the way when a horse dropped to roll. I discovered that in order for this partnership to work, the rider must respect the horse. While this meant I learned how to sit horses that bolted, bucked, or spooked violently, I was building the horse’s confidence during the years I should have been building mine.
The outcome of the training became more important than the process. It became second nature to always get back on after a fall because for the horse the lesson couldn’t end on a bad note. It was easy loving these horses; even in their destruction, they were innocent. Therefore I told myself the horse was more important than the rider and I began to ride for the horse and not for me. I lived for these horses.
Anyone who rode Fancy was warned that she often misbehaved. She was still young and playful, experimenting with riders, pushing the boundaries of tolerated behavior. Yet she also came to the barn with a rough history. My trainer rescued her upon a friend’s suggestion; Fancy had been abandoned in a field by her previous owners. When she first arrived at our barn, she was underweight by hundreds of pounds to the point that her ribs and hips pressed tightly against her skin and her neck and back were covered in a skin disease called rain rot. She was also severely shy of humans.
Fancy had just bucked me off over her head and I never saw it coming. With too much momentum after the fence, she accidentally stepped on me. Her hoof left a sandy hoofprint on the back of my red shirt. My right clavicle snapped in two.
I understand now that this wasn’t entirely my fault. My training had been on helping the horse learn and heal. Things never slowed down enough for me to form a solid foundation of confidence for myself. Partly this was due to my excitement for working with these horses, but I also didn’t care about me. Being young, I thought no matter how many times I fell, I would always come back for the horse. Wendy and Woodgate’s program taught me that I had two options when I fell: hospital or back on. I never imagined there was more to it than that.
A wooden rail does not have control when it is continually being broken, then put back only to be struck down again: a tool re-used until run dull. The chips of wood from jumps painted purple, red, and white decorated the sand of the arena as if thrown randomly. For whatever reason, my attention had been fixed on the rail, and not on the subtle clues that I am sure Fancy gave that she would buck on the other side of the fence. Perhaps her head had been held a little higher than normal, her step a little quicker, or any other hint that her excitement had increased. I didn’t recognize that by ignoring Fancy’s change in energy, I had ignored mine. My own excitement over the jump made me unaware of everything else. I had stopped thinking. I should have noticed something; I should not have ignored instinct.
After being taught the horse comes first, it is hard to blame her. As her rider, it was my job to protect her. I am told what happened was not my fault. Yet I can only focus on what I did wrong, or what I should have done because I knew better. Like a memory that is constantly revisited, each time the rail is hit, its strength weakens. It becomes a cycle, and eventually that wood has to be thrown away. I can’t see past the chipped wood. While it is human to blame myself, thankfully horses don't judge. They don't hold a grudge because they don't know how to blame. If I acknowledge this was Fancy’s fault, then I also acknowledge that I lost control.
It is hard to admit to being powerless.
Physical wounds can be healed with surgery, titanium plates, and time. My parents raised me to not complain about things I could fix, conditioning me to be independent and not rely on others. My mother unintentionally taught me to be like her: preferring to stitch up her own wounds at the kitchen table than going to the hospital. To create stability, I adopted the mentality that everything would be perfect if I could be a rock for them. I learned that if I didn’t talk about issues, I could continue to pretend they did not exist. Eventually, ignored long enough, this lesson changed to teach me that to talk about a nightmare is to relive it while awake.
After Fancy threw me, Wendy asked if I could mount from the ground. Reaching for the saddle, my right arm felt useless, disconnected: a dull throbbing pain I barely recognized as my own. I told her that and she laughed. I watched my right hand lightly grasp the cantle of the saddle, but I could not feel the leather. Pulling myself back up, Wendy told me to jump it again. Whether I could feel my arm or not, it moved out of instinct and muscle memory and I didn’t think about it. This time, Fancy and I both behaved.
We had both been too excited, and too off balance, forcing us to rush the fence. This was the first time I broke my collarbone, which resulted in a three-inch titanium plate, six screws, and three months without riding. When I finally came back after that injury, I didn’t want to take things slow. I wanted to push myself to make up for the lost time. However, Wendy thought otherwise; holding me back in competitions and limiting my participation in lessons, she didn’t have confidence in me. All riders are told, it is not enough to learn how to ride, you must also learn how to fall, but I’d like to add that it is also important to learn how to recover.
I have never been afraid of anything regarding horses. Two years after this break, I re-broke the same clavicle in the same spot. Hit in the center, the plate bent and the bone broke. The second time, it healed imperfectly, forming a keloid on half of the almost three inch white scar that still hurts today. Yet despite all this, physical pain has never been a deterrent; the second I am cleared to ride again, I am back on the horse. Each time I return, it’s a reminder that I come back for them. I trust the horse more than I trust myself. It reinforces for me the importance of the connection between horse and rider. Riding is teamwork; they need my guidance as much as I need their stability. Getting hurt is part of the sport. While the ER becomes a second home, the horses become a lifestyle.
By the time I met Fancy, Wendy and I had moved to a new barn, but the training program remained roughly the same. It took a solid six months before Fancy was even close to being ridden again. Once Fancy’s rain rot healed and she regained all her lost weight, she began working. Psychologically, I don’t think she healed, and instead just moved on.
Fear manifests itself in three ways, not just specific to prey animals: flight, fight, or freeze. Fancy had been left in the field powerless; she had nowhere to run. When we rescued her, she began to rediscover her freedom, and her power, through fighting us. She lashed out with teeth or hooves, but even still it stemmed from fear, she had no intention to harm us. The first months back under saddle, she randomly froze. This response became the hardest to help her work through. When she froze, the fear built without outlet. She stood trapped inside her mind, trembling, whites of her eyes rolling. Then suddenly, she would explode bucking and bolting, unable to escape herself.
Following the more successful jump, I led Fancy over to the rail where my water bottle perched on a fence post. Holding her reins with my left hand, I reached for the bottle with my right. The first wave of warning pain hit my whole arm, turning into a numbing pain that pulsed from shoulder to fingertips like current along a wire. I turned to my mother and for the first time, said: “I don’t want to ride anymore.”
Your horse knows your emotions before you do. It is impossible to hide anything from a horse; as prey animals, they are acutely aware of everything around them. A horse is a mirror of the rider, and it is the rider’s job to learn how to read that. A horse that spooks violently with or without any history of trauma is sometimes only reacting to the rider’s fear, whether the rider is conscious of the cause or not. Unconsciously, a rider who has suffered will gravitate towards a horse with a history of abuse. The emotional energies and mindsets are similar. The rider believes he or she can help the horse, oblivious to the fact that neither is stable. A traumatized horse will only amplify the rider’s trauma.
Like the keloid on my clavicle overworking to protect the area, trauma intensifies memory in the hopes of avoiding a similar situation again. Sometimes it presents itself through physical reactions. Since a horse mirrors the rider’s emotional state, I began to recognize a bit of myself in Fancy. The healing process is always slow, and she did not easily trust people. She would shy away in an attempt to avoid being hurt again. Hyper-alert to any sound or movement, she tried to be aware of everything around her. She flinched whenever anyone touched her.
Just as I had broken my collarbone twice, I had been thrown two other times in my life, yet differently. When I was seven years old, I first learned the signals warning me to avoid certain situations. Trauma teaches you to question everything, just not in a good way. Family is supposed to keep each other safe, but behind a closed door, a cousin knew me too well.
The idea of exploration is risk taking, moving outside the comfort zone. Yet when you’re punished for being curious, you learn to lock things away. In a loft in Crete overlooking acres of olive trees, 2AM lute music is beautiful. However, the Greek man’s touch after drinking too much raki taints his chords into something haunting, echoes of thirteen years before. Once simply beautiful music now triggers shaking and avoidance.
Physical contact can feel like fire.
Stupidity and bravery are sometimes one and the same. When learning on unpredictable problem horses, you learn how to stay on before you learn to ride. This eventually creates two types of riders: those who become brave and those who break. Neither stem from confidence. To live in the second category is to admit to being powerless. Therefore, I fell into the first; always volunteering to ride the more challenging horses, I didn’t stop to think things through. The horse relies on guidance from the rider, which becomes a problem when the rider isn’t thinking and just reacting. There is no good outcome from reckless behavior. The rider has to be consciously in the present. Reactions alone can only come from past experiences; they’ll only keep the situation at a constant. Each time a horse is ridden, it learns something, and it is the rider’s job to ensure this education is positive. The horse you get off of is different than the one you got on. In order to break out of a mindset, an external change must occur.
Everyone is addicted to something that takes the pain away. For me, it is horses and riding. I always get back on because of my training, my instinct, my choice. I learned you do what you have to for family, protect them in any way possible. These horses are my family. I trust them more than people. At home, I’ve tried to protect my parents in the same way I try to keep these horses safe. The focus is on functioning without getting in anyone else’s way. As an only child, I cannot hurt them. My mother told me once I was the reason they had not divorced, knowing full well I knew they would be happier apart. Our relationship works on a need-to-know basis, and the things I know would only hurt them. Sometimes the shield you put up to protect those around you is only an already dented plate holding broken pieces together. After the second break, the surgeon decided against replacing the plate, the bone would grow back under it. Secrets build like scar tissue you can’t ignore, and when you hold enough secrets for others, you begin to lose sight of yourself.
I keep returning to the horses because I don’t have to keep their secrets. My passion for this sport has gone beyond the physical connectedness of riding, and become an emotional stabilizer. There is nothing to run from with physical pain; in time, injuries heal and I can function again. Riding becomes a cycle of self-injury. I get back on the horse because I am running from myself. Physical pain can ground a spinning mind faster than anything.
I don’t want to ride anymore. I’ve never said those words again because it was a lie. I couldn’t ride anymore. On the way to the emergency room, my mother appeared calm and collected, but the energy around her buzzed. Her attention split between me and the road, she told me to call my father. I refused, not only because any distraction hurt, but because I didn’t know how to tell him what happened. My mother became frustrated with me and my silence. While she called, I became acutely aware of every bump and pothole, each making me tenser than the last.
X-rays later showed half the bone resting just above my lung. Bone fragments, chipped pieces of wood, depicted as white dots lay scattered. The other half of the bone pressed up against my skin like a drawbridge, threatening to break through and force another scar, another reminder. Numb with pain and stupid with curiosity, I moved the bone with my fingers. I calmly ran a finger along the place where bone should have been.
About the Author: Tianli Kilpatrick is a Master's student and Teaching Assistant at Northern Michigan University in Marquette, MI, studying creative nonfiction. She received her B.A. in English from Allegheny College in Pennsylvania. She was born in China but raised by an adoptive family in Massachusetts. Other than being a student, she's been an equestrian for most of her life.