The Sound­track of Our Lives

Through a mir­a­cle of tech­nol­ogy and mod­ern medicine, a dres­sage rider re­gains her hear­ing and her abil­ity to re­con­nect with horses.

Dressage Today - - Transitions - By Terry Gol­son

Iam 58. I’ve loved horses for ev­ery one of those years. In 1975, in­spired by the novel The Horse­mas­ters, I con­vinced my par­ents to send me to The Tal­land School of Equi­tation in Eng­land, a place that ad­ver­tised in the back of a magazine. This was be­fore the In­ter­net, so all that I knew about it was what I’d read in a brochure. It turned out that my real-life ex­pe­ri­ence was far bet­ter than the book. The owner, Mrs. Sivewright, was a Grand Prix dres­sage rider and in­ter­na­tional judge, so my first ex­po­sure to the sport was from the best.

I went on to get a BS in an­i­mal sci­ence and made horses a ca­reer. I con­tin­ued to luck out and train with phe­nom­e­nal teach­ers, in­clud­ing U.S. Olympian Jes­sica Ranse­hausen and Swedish Olympian Louise Nath­horst.

I had a young mare who I was bring­ing along, but in my early 20s she went lame and in a way, I did, too. Her ail­ment was bla­tantly ob­vi­ous. Mine was not. I was slowly go­ing deaf.

At first I didn’t even re­al­ize that my hear­ing was de­te­ri­o­rat­ing, but I was vaguely aware that things that had been easy had be­come dif­fi­cult. Then,

even after my loss was di­ag­nosed, and I wore aids, the im­pact of my poor hear­ing was in­sid­i­ous.

Hear­ing aids aren’t like put­ting on glasses. The in­for­ma­tion that comes in through the aids is im­per­fect. Some sounds are lost. Some are gar­bled. Wear­ing them, how­ever, was far bet­ter than the al­ter­na­tive of si­lence.

At first, when my hear­ing loss was mild, I missed a word here and there. My brain filled in the blanks. Some­times it was wrong. Once, on a rid­ing va­ca­tion in Wy­oming, I was on the lead horse. I thought that the wran­gler told me to can­ter off, so I did, leav­ing ev­ery­one else in my dust. I had ac­tu­ally been told to halt.

One story like that is funny, but they build up, and although this one ended fine—I can­tered back—not hear­ing on horse­back can be dan­ger­ous. As my hear­ing wors­ened, I couldn’t hear when a rider came up be­hind me and asked for the rail. At a show, I couldn’t hear the ste­ward’s di­rec­tions. I couldn’t hear my rid­ing in­struc­tor at the far end of the ring even if she yelled. I couldn’t hear my stu­dents.

I changed ca­reers. My horse was sold and be­came a brood­mare. I mar­ried and had ba­bies of my own. I worked hard to stay in the hear­ing world, but it was ex­haust­ing. Sheer willpower and the best hear­ing aids couldn’t fix it. I had long spans of not rid­ing, but that need to be around horses kept welling up.

Pe­ri­od­i­cally I would part-lease a horse and take lessons. But my hear­ing wors­ened to the point that the only way I could hear a teacher was if we used my per­sonal ra­dio sys­tem and even then I missed much of what was said. Hear­ing aids barely al­lowed me to have face-to-face con­ver­sa­tions. The ban­ter and ca­ma­raderie of barn friends were out of reach. I couldn’t hear the clop­ping of horses com­ing up the sta­ble aisle or the po­lite “com­ing by” from the owner. Rid­ing be­came un­ten­able. I left horses, I thought, for good.

But then a mir­a­cle of tech­nol­ogy and medicine hap­pened. At the age of 52 I got a cochlear im­plant (CI). The next year I had the sec­ond ear im­planted. My hear­ing wasn’t re­stored overnight. A CI by­passes the bro­ken part of the ear and an elec­trode stim­u­lates the au­di­tory nerve. My brain had to learn how to process this in­for­ma­tion. At first the world sounded noth­ing like what I re­mem­bered, but over time sounds be­came com­plex and nat­u­ral. The brain is an amaz­ingly flex­i­ble or­gan! Put me in a sound­proof booth and I test at 95 per­cent. In real life there are con­straints to my hear­ing.

For ex­am­ple, the mi­cro­phones that pick up sound have a lim­ited range, but my life has been trans­formed. For years I hadn’t been able to lis­ten to the car ra­dio or use the tele­phone. I can now do both. I can hear din­nertable con­ver­sa­tion and even peo­ple talk­ing in another room. I can hear my dogs bark. I can hear horses.

Not long after get­ting the CIs, a friend, who lives in Te­mec­ula, Cal­i­for­nia, in­vited me to spend a day with her rid­ing win­ery to win­ery. From the sad­dle I could hear her talk to me. I could hear the rhythm of hooves hit­ting the ground. I heard her mare snort as she walked up a hill.

Back home, another friend of­fered to let me ride her horse. He is a ba­sic walk, trot, can­ter sort of guy, which was fine with me. I was back in the sad­dle and it was enough. Be­ing around horses made me ridicu­lously happy. My hus­band no­ticed. He said, “Go buy a horse.” So I went shop­ping.

I wanted a horse with a kind eye

who I could trail ride alone. I told my friends that I was never buy­ing another pair of white breeches, that this time it was all about be­ing re­laxed on the trail.

I found my heart horse, a geld­ing named Tonka. I bought him for his sane de­meanor and his sturdy good looks. He had a de­cent walk and trot and could can­ter to the left (the can­ter to the right was another story). He proved to be the perfect com­pan­ion on the trails.

But once a dres­sage rider, al­ways a dres­sage rider. Tonka wasn’t as bal­anced as I thought he could be. He wasn’t as re­spon­sive to the aids as I liked and his long back re­quired ex­er­cises in or­der to mus­cle up so that he’d have rid­ing longevity. It was time to get back into the dres­sage ring.

Once again, I lucked out. I now train with Grand Prix rider Kim Litwinczak. It turns out that my 14.3-hand black and white Paint is a good lit­tle dres­sage horse. I bought white breeches. We go to USDF shows and con­sis­tently score in the mid-60s.

With Kim’s en­cour­age­ment, I’m back to teach­ing. I spe­cial­ize in the un­tra­di­tional dres­sage horse and the novice rider who wants that con­nec­tion to her horse that the right train­ing can nurture.

Many doors opened up when my hear­ing was re­turned to me, but the one I walked through was the sta­ble door back to horses.

Ev­ery hoof­beat that I hear, ev­ery soft whif­fle of a wel­com­ing breath, the com­fort­ing sound of a horse munch­ing hay—all of it—fills me with grat­i­tude. The next time you’re in the barn, close your eyes, lis­ten and join me in feel­ing for­tu­nate that this is the sound­track of our lives.

Terry Gol­son and Tonka, her 14.3-hand Paint geld­ing, now suc­cess­fully com­pete through First Level at USDF rec­og­nized com­pe­ti­tions.

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