When I was 15 years old, I had a riding accident. It was early in the morning, and I was doing my side job of exercising racehorses at Pimlico racetrack in Baltimore city. It was a Saturday. We had a few sets to get out, (I rode for a busy training stable, and sets of two or three a couple times each morning was common) and I wasn’t really thinking about much, just taking note of who was in the stables, who might have been hot walking, my egg sandwich waiting for me at the track kitchen later, or which horses we had planned to school the gate.
I didn’t check my girth twice like normal before heading out to the racetrack. I also wasn’t really supposed to be there. At the age of 15, it is not possible to acquire a license to be galloping horses on the racetrack. You had to be sneaky. I was a year away from the legal age. My parents didn’t really know about this rule, so when I rode my bike to the stable down the street at 5:00 in the morning and I climbed into the truck to head to the track, they were pretty much clueless (and still asleep). I knew what was going on, but was willing to be sneaky as hell in order to get a chance to breeze those horses on the track. It was everything to me. I loved to go fast. I loved every single moment of what I was doing. At home my event horse was fast, like super fast, and it took every little pound of me to keep him in some sort of respectable speed in each phase, and he might have been my first introduction to creative bits to tap into that control factor. I discovered the benefits of a pelham. The racehorses trained me, and I used it in the Three day eventing world. Daily.
My friends at school were more concerned about how to obtain a fake id to get into bars, and I was more concerned about my track license. I was still six months away from a legal license, and obsessed with looking old enough to be there. I cut my hair so short that patrons of the McDonalds around the corner questioned my presence in the ladies bathroom. I once had to show my bra strap to prove I was a girl. The irony of North Carolina does not escape me. I smoked my first cigarette, and learned having a lighter on your body was a viable tool against sketchy hot walkers.
Yet, one morning, I had to pay the price for my mind wandering. It was such a cute horse, bay, young, and sensible. We could trot around the entire mile length track going the opposite direction without even a head toss at the other horses flying by him. I was relaxed, he was relaxed, and the horse we were in company with jigged and danced, but we ignored him as a team. We turned around where the starting gate hangs out in the mornings, and picked up an easy gallop along the backstretch. The plan was to hit the turn and pick up to a full breeze toward the wire. I egged him on past the backside stables, it felt good, we were keeping pace on the outside of the greener horse who was just learning the ropes. It was my job to keep my horse just outside that greener horse who was on the rail. We hit the turn, and I felt the normal adrenaline take over as we started to to go flat out. Then I felt the saddle slip. I immediately felt my mouth curse two words out loud and it was over.
I woke up in the ambulance. There was a woman asking me if I could tell her my name. What an odd question I thought, of course I could tell her my name. And I did. I think I got it right. She asked me the year. She asked me who was president. I answered her, but oddly, I hadn’t figured out why I was being asked these questions. Then she asked me my age. I replied 15. She paused. She asked me again. Then I finally remembered where I was. Oh my Lord, I forgot to lie.
My hospital stay revealed a fractured vertebrae, mild concussion, and the doctors said sit tight for the rest of the season, and don’t get on a horse again for a few months. I sort of listened, but at the age of 15, what are you really going to do with all of that free time? Within a few weeks I was back on my horse at home and focusing on eventing. I was banned from the racetrack until my November birthday, but not from the race stable, so I soon returned to trot or gallop babies around the farm, or swim them in the pond at the bottom of their hill.
I finally turned 16, and obtained a legal exercise license and continued to ride racehorses before school every morning, desperately trying to avoid demerits from my school’s student advisor for being late all of the time. I showered occasionally on campus in the dormitories, or just sought out the back of the room for a seat and suffered the endless teacher criticism for being removed or unfocused. In reality, I knew I just smelled like the barn.
My equestrian career flourished, yet the details blurred together and throughout the years, I recognize my experiences have been healthy, I have enjoyed many moments, helped secure my presence in this horse show world just enough for my own personal satisfaction. I have no complaints, it has been good. I love racing, love OTTB’s. I also love warmbloods. I listen well, I hear people’s thoughts, I want what is best for the entire show world. I work like every one else works in the horse world, hard.
Then I broke my leg. At the age of 44, it was the only time I could remember time actually standing still. For months.
Horse people have a ridiculous time frame in their heads when they have to sit still. It is like one week is equivalent to one year. I couldn’t believe what was happening but couldn’t complain because I know it could have been so much worse. I thought of Todd Minikus and his groin injury which had prevented him from competing most of the winter despite it being an Olympic year, and would it diminish his chances of making the team for Rio when he had a barn full of top potential candidates? I thought of Peter Pletcher breaking his arm at the beginning of WEF and all of the people who stepped up to help him get through those important weeks for his clients while he stood from the in-gate. My friends did the same for me. I became incredibly sad for the Eventing world, and hash tagged my way through every fatality, thinking to myself, when is this going to end and what can we do to help this sport? I used to compete in 3-day, I should be able to come up with a solution. Yet, I am still thinking about it… I witnessed countless people react to drunk driving, and wondered why they hadn’t reacted as strongly before this year? I mean really, MADD was created decades ago by distraught mothers. I looked outside of the A-circuit for the first time in years and discovered maybe I could be useful to educational programs, unrecognized circuits, and even kids in the city looking for options besides heroin and crack. Good kids. Kids with hope on their side. I found myself desperately wanting to support people with a carriage business, fruit cart, and even simply being amazed at vaulters. Why isn’t vaulting on everyone’s radar? Or jousting, or polocrosse? I have more time to watch televised events all over the world, subscribe to every horse channel, and witness every majestic moment or tragedy through my computer. I question my own state facilities, wondering what we can do to make them better, make them competitive on the international circuit.
I understand when horse people are so focused on their own lives, they are too exhausted to think outside the box, but it shouldn’t be forgotten that an entire population of horse people exist (and all over the world). Racing saw a badly needed hero in American Pharoah, maybe this year’s favorite Nyquist will follow suit to truly inspire race fans worldwide, and maybe those same racing fans will further recognize the second careers of those horses, each discipline needs to remember they are not the only exclusive horse people out there, and we need to think together, think like a horse, think like a solid community. The next few years are going to be incredibly important, we are going to see some big changes in all of our horse disciplines, horse management, tolerance, welfare, and education. Hopefully we see more horse movies like Harry and Snowman to encourage all of us. (Personally, the Black Stallion catapulted my desire to speak with all animals, not just the horse) If we could find a way to see more of those kinds of films, maybe we would see less abuse in our communities. If we can figure out a way to work together, we could bring extraordinary and badly needed change.
We are the same, don’t ever forget it, every soft touch to the muzzle, no matter the background, is the same for all of us, and we need each other to stay in this world we can never let go of. The horse world. Your world, my world, our world. Yet, I am also reminding people for every one of your own accomplishments, it might be equally important to recognize someone else’s accomplishments. Without that tool, we may never be able to find solutions in an ever evolving horse world, we may not ever be able to work together, all horse sports and lifestyles included. You need to celebrate your own successful moment? Good, celebrate someone else’s successful moment with it. It will do you good. It will do all of us some good.
I am so glad I was hurt on March 11th, 2016. It truly may be one of the best things that has ever happened to me. Yes it’s awkward, everything hurts all of the time, but really, who cares about that? The broken leg will heal, eventually. The benefits from my accident could fill pages and pages with stories, about new friendships, new projects, encouragement, relationships, goals, survival, creative teaching, and most of all a new perspective on the horse world. If you haven’t given yourself a reality check in a while, now might be the time to do it, regardless of age. Make sure you are leading the life you want to lead, starting now, make sure you are taking care of the one body you have, so that you stick around to take care of the horses you love. Then try to give back to your community.
This morning I crawled out of bed way too early, got myself dressed and in the car, and drove to the Pimlico racetrack for their Sunrise Guided Tours put on by a slew of volunteers. I don’t like to get up early, I am tired of the rain, but someone in my head reminded me the people putting on events like these, are contributing immensely to the horse world, they are the ones inspiring little kids to maybe consider horses in their own futures, pushing a difficult industry into a positive light, and without them, we may not have anyone rooting for a Triple Crown Winner. Schools are sending groups of kids to take a tour of the facility, I ran into a slew of people I knew, without any prior planning to meet up. Quite simply it was just cool to be there having breakfast and watching horses galloping by. I’d do it again in a heart beat, and if you are anywhere around Baltimore City, you should, too. http://www.preakness.com/sunrise-tours-6 It is worth it. Coffee, drinks, and fruit on are on the house. I am excited for the Thoroughbreds in our country, I am glad there are many flourishing, I am glad we are making room for them at recognized shows, I want to see more of them each year, I want USEF to recognize multiple fence heights, if they will ever listen to my pleas. I think they are amazing creatures. I also like seeing where they begin, from the foals at the various Maryland/Kentucky/Pennsylvania farms to the racetracks like Pimlico, Laurel, and hopefully to the shows I attend down the road.
PC jennifer Webster
I am looking at thoroughbreds again in the same way I did when I was 15, as athletic, powerful creatures, and I have a tremendous amount of respect for people working with them at the racetrack. I may have moved on from those thrilling days of speed, but I have no less admiration for them and I am constantly thinking how to connect the dots from the kids visiting city stables to jockeys at Pimlico. I think there is definitely an answer there. Hopefully we won’t lose Old Hilltop, but that reality is haunting us from the horizon. It certainly would make what I envision that much harder. If you have ideas, share your ideas, don’t sleep on them, don’t wait until you are sidelined with an injury to mention those ideas to someone, my biggest regret may actually be not stepping up to the plate earlier with my head full of similar thoughts. Just remember to respect all life with horses, no matter what. Because we are all the same.
And the next time you ride, make sure you tighten your girth.