Jumping the Unexpected Barriers
I grew up with horses.
It’s a wonder I didn’t acquire my disability earlier, amongst my childhood recklessness. My earliest memories are of riding double with my mom on her skittish Appaloosa. At the age of 7, I got my first pony. While most kids played sports after school, I came home to ride.
I got my first horse, a green, undertrained Morgan mare in high school. She was rough around the edges and always gave me a run for my money. Our neighbor took me under her wing and I finally gained the experience I so desperately wanted of training to ride in three-phase events. That was dressage (in the ring), cross-country (gallivanting over obstacles among fields) and stadium jumping. It was an amazing experience, and I began to shape my young life around horses.
I struggled to find involvement with horses in college and even abandoned my academic track to work for an eventing farm in southwest England. We rode multiple horses daily, along with all the grunt work, and I loved it. That experience taught me how important it is to follow your passion in life. Upon returning to school, I immediately took a job at a local barn and found a horse to ride. After that I was determined to keep horses a part of my life, whenever possible. The following year, I graduated and began looking for jobs to support myself.
Then my heart stopped, literally.
I suffered a random, sudden cardiac arrest. It was my 23rd birthday, and very nearly the day I had passed as well. I received CPR as the ambulance was summoned, which brought me to the hospital. I now realize how incredibly fortunate it was that I lived near a teaching hospital where they had the education and necessary tools to keep me alive.
In the days that followed, my family and friends poured in, and my support system gained incredible numbers. My family had to face the devastating decisions of how to proceed. My mom fought for me, when no one knew the level of brain damage I’d sustained or if I’d ever wake up.
As they lowered my medication doses, I woke up blind without my memory or awareness of my current situation. I remember the familiar voices, and how everyone would introduce themselves upon visiting. After nine months in three different rehab hospitals, I went back to Vermont, with no concept of how vastly my reality had changed.
I could now see out of a small portion of both eyes, but couldn’t read or avoid anything in my way. My balance was horrendous, and I was always grabbing for the nearest arm to save myself. I was so desperate for independence, even though it wasn’t within reach. Then amazing fortune struck: My former employer at the local barn happened to be a certified therapeutic riding coach and offered me weekly lessons.
The ability to bond again with an animal felt so natural. I slowly began to recognize myself again. A little over a year passed, and the expected misfortune of that horse’s passing reached me. He was very old and had lived a good life, though I knew that it was likely the end of my time among horses.
I rode again at my first No Barriers Summit in 2011 at Winter Park, CO. I continued seeking horse exposure wherever possible and managed to ride or visit horses each year. Upon seeing them, it’s like recognizing a gaping hole in your life that your passion once filled. Yes, that feels terrible, though there’s certain peace in the ability to recognize it so I can seize each opportunity I get.
When I registered for the 2015 No Barriers Summit, I remember trying to stuff away a sinking disappointment that riding was not offered. Still, horses are horses, and I had to find out what equine facilitated learning was. It was my Saturday afternoon activity, and after a rigorous morning finding my way through the ropes course, I hoped I’d have the balance and stability to maintain my confidence around the horses.
We were all instructed to choose a horse based on its response to your presence. Horses are very intelligent and have a gift for reading people appropriately. My friend had chosen the lead mare — a horse I knew would be too strong for me and would sense my intimidation. I headed over to Dolly, a mare I’d met a few moments before. She looked nervous, as did the man standing next to her. I decided to work with them.
One of my deficits from my brain injury is poor motor coordination. I know how to catch a horse, but do I trust in my physical ability to do so? Absolutely not. Now, I found myself facing my emotions of hatred for this injury and shame for not being able to complete a task that had been so simple for so long.
I face these emotional challenges nearly every day, but I never allow them to boil up, especially around others.
My partner, Tiny, and I worked together to buckle the halter onto a very nervous, wild-eyed Dolly. I found myself holding the lead line when we were given the instruction to lead our horses around the arena. I’ve always had difficulty hiding my emotions and as I began to process the fact that I did not have the stability I felt I needed to maintain proper control of this gentle giant, I felt as if I was looking at everything I wanted in life, yet could no longer find a way to have it.
That feeling broke me. All of my emotions became unbridled as I fell apart in the arena, next to the horse in my hands, and the ironically named man next to me. He wanted so badly to help me, or to at least understand the issue at hand. But I wanted for my emotional difficulties to fade away. Soon, I calmed enough to speak, and recognize that we still had a task to complete.
Tiny helped create an element of stability, by offering me a hand as we both held a part of the lead line. As soon as my stability anguish was quelled, Dolly, Tiny, and I ambled around the arena, completing our last task.
At the end of the day, I had faced my fears, and overcome barriers. Both the obvious — my physical mobility — and the not so obvious — my long-standing emotional guards.
In the moment I was mortified by my lack of emotional control, which just made it worse. But in stepping back from the experience, and looking at all the angles, I can now see how much I’ve grown in the years since my injury.
It takes time to re-identify yourself after acquiring a disability, especially one whose limits you’re unable to fully grasp. Although the gift is also in the undefined limits. I may not always be sure of my ability to fulfill a task, but I always have to try. It’s the only way to test, and stretch, your limitations.