April 9, 2004, Good Friday
Paso Robles, CA
Even if I had not told this story many, many times (especially to various specialists!), I would never forget this day. Changed my life? Heck yes. In fact, I felt like in the blink of an eye, I switched my life for someone else's.
What a spring we had that year! The weather was deliriously beautiful. I remember riding horseback through the hills of the ranch, the grass was so tall and green, especially under the oak trees where it had been watered by drops of heavy dew falling from the branches.
I had four horses to keep ridden and trained. Jedi, a big, tall, dark-brown and white paint gelding. Duke, a nice little sorrel Quarter Horse. Dennis, an old campaigner who really didn't need much riding, just enough to keep his muscles loose. And of course, my horse, Shadow. I'll write more about Shadow in another post.
I rode, at this time, mostly English, loving the freedom of the lightness of the saddle and the reward of being close and balanced with the horse.
That spring, I found a mystical new canyon which I named Dead Calf Canyon because of the carcass I found lying along the dry creek bank. Each time I passed the bones and stretched hide, I'd see the evidence of ongoing play and chewing on the part of local coyotes. Soon, the skull would be way down the canyon, while a leg bone would have been dragged north. I could tell what the calf died of from the chewed[up ball of hay twine that lay on the sand near the throat area. He choked and died from his own curiosity.
Wild pigs would startle my horse as they raced on ahead down narrow gulches, and I'd spur forward to chase them, yelling like a wild banshee to scare the destructive pigs from the ranch. I remember telling my sister in NH about doing this and she wrote back, "You and I sure do lead different lives!"
But those halcyon days were nothing different for me and the way my life went. Working on ranches, training horses for over 30 years, this was just status quo and yet, I never took it for granted.
One day in early 2004, I remember riding up Bobcat Canyon and seeing a bobcat crouching up ahead on a hill. I stopped my horse. The bobcat crouched, trying to become invisible. Shadow stomped his impatience to either be on our way or to go home to the ranch. When the cat realised that I'd seen her, but did not intend any harm, she turned and slinked up a deer trail. I put Shadow right on that track like someone in NY grabbing a taxi and yelling, "Follow that cab!"
That was what my days were like. And jumping. Oh, how I loved jumping and I was riding a horse, Jedi, who loved it too. We had a lot of jumping to do in order to ever become the team I envisioned we'd be. I knew that. So, I saddled up Jedi several times a week and we either worked in the arena near the stables on the ranch, or we'd go out and canter over some jumps I'd set up outside in various places, or we'd go find some logs to jump in the hills. I was feeling very confident of Jedi and I trusted him. He was improving in all of his work, even his dressage work. His owner was very enthusiastic with the big horse I'd just bought him six months before.
So, on one of those specious days, I saddled up Jedi with every intent to do as I'd done most days. We warmed up in the arena, and then we went for a nice little trail ride. I remember thinking how blessed I was to be in that space in time. I remember thinking, though it probably wasn't that exact day, that if Saddam Hussein and all the other tyrants of the world could just come ride with me through this lush, green grass on these enchanted hills, they would see all that was right with the world and peace would prevail.
I had two jumps set up near the house. They were "related distances," meaning that they were close enough that a certain number of strides from the horse would fit between the two fences. They were set at about 3'3" tall. The second was an oxer (made with two fences beside each other, an oxer is wider than a single, vertical jump).
I cantered Jedi over the first jump, no problem. As he reached the perfect take off spot in front of the oxer, he "ran out." He avoided the jump by running to the side. But he was honest about it, I could handle it, so I spanked him lightly with the crop, letting him know that this was not acceptable, and then I circled him back around between the two jumps and cantered him back strongly to the oxer again. He jumped with a huge pop. But it was fun, freeing, exhilirating and my heart silently sang.
We landed in the correct lead and then circled back around the sumacs toward the oxer again. I thought that it felt SO good, we just had to do it again and besides, it would reinforce in Jedi's brain that he had to go forward over jumps.
Everything was smooth. Nothing felt wrong. He had just jumped this jump, I had no reason to believe he wouldn't do it now. I rode him strongly forward with my legs on his sides to show him there was no doubt about what I wanted him to do. I let my right hand bring the crop up just high enough out to the side so that his right eye could see it, and he'd know: Go forward.
The last thing I remember is him stopping hard and my body tilting forward over the pommel of the English saddle. I don't remember crashing through the fence rails, I don't remember hitting my head, I don't recall how I landed, or seeing stars, or the pain of striking the ground.
[I have learned since that when someone loses consciousness, there is often no recollection of the events immediately leading up to blacking out. The brain needs time to file events into memory, and when events happen but then instantly the brain is unconscious, it has not had the time to input the event into the memory. Thus, family and friends should not try to get someone to remember what led up to the injury/loss of consciousness. It is not amnesia. It is simply not there because the brain did not have time to file it. In my case, I will never know certain things, because I was out there training the horse all alone. No one observed the wreck. And my brain never recorded it.]
The next thing to come to my awareness was that I was on the ground in some position, just what, I do not recall. Any horseman knows that you are often injured and when you are, the first thing you do is assess the damages. What is broken, if anything?
But I felt electricity zinging through my extremities. I feared this meant paralysis, so I called out to God, "Please don't let me be paralyzed! Please don't let me be paralyzed!" At that time, I was not thinking broken neck, or landing on my head or passing out. I was only "in the moment." The things going on were enough to fill my brain.
I got up somehow onto my hands and knees. I must have taken off my riding helmet at that time and my bent-up glasses. And I realised that my neck could not hold the weight of my head one iota. I don't think, as I think back now (and the many times I've told this story) that I was aware at the time that my neck was broken. Just DEALING WITH IT, all alone, filled my mind.
I stood up, but had to bend over at the waist and let my head hang down. There was simply nothing that was going to hold my head up. Not muscles or ligaments and certainly not my spine.
I saw Jedi nearby, head down and grazing on dried grass. Fearing that he'd step through his reins, I walked over to him, took the reins over his head, and tugged at them to get him to follow me. The tugging of the reins sent such pain through to my neck! But he came along with me and I walked him, me bent over at the waist, head hanging down, the couple of hundred feet to the door of my house.
The door was under the carport, and just the day before, I had led Jedi under the carport and past that door for the first time, proudly telling Pete, "See how much he trusts me! He'll follow me right through this scary stuff!"
So, I had confidence that he would follow me right up to the door, which I opened and called to Pete inside to come help me. When he heard me and came to the door, I said, "I have to go to the hospital. Jedi stopped in front of a jump and I fell off and I'm really hurt."
Pete asked, "What do you want me to do first?" And I said, "Put the horse away for me."
He took the reins, and I went into the house and sat down in an old chair in the kitchen. I wondered if I should wait 'til he returned, and he could take me to the ER himself. Or wait and he could call the ambulance. I sat there with my head hanging down between my knees and in a great lot of pain. I realised that I could not climb into the truck and endure the ride to the ER. And I could not wait for Pete to come back, so I struggled up and into the office and dialed 911. Something I had never done for myself. My first ride in an ambulance. I told the woman, "I fell off my horse and need an ambulance." I am not sure, but I might have told her I thought I'd broken my neck. But I'm not sure. I don't seem to have a remembrance of exactly when I learned for sure that my neck had broken. Maybe I instinctively knew it from the get go.
More about the ambulance ride and the hospital stay in another post.