Distracted by planning my busy day, I learned the hard way that complacency around the barn can be costly.
Reality check: Distracted by planning my busy day, I learned the hard way that complacency around the barn can be costly.
The morning was brisk, the first relief from the summer’s heat waves. Eager to get my day started, I grabbed Spartacus’s halter and headed to his stall. Eyes bright, the chestnut gelding was his usual spicy self, ears hummingbird-quick, nose investigating my fingers, elbows and pockets for treats.
As we made our way through the yard, I began plotting out my morning. I’d ride Spartacus, then pop onto my other mount, Bailey. Maybe make a quick stop at the tack store before heading back into Los Angeles, where my laptop and deadlines awaited. Behind me, Spartacus danced a little. A small portion of my brain registered that he had a little more spring in his step. I took up on the lead rope and discarded the idea of bell boot shopping in favor of spending more time burning off some of Spartacus’s energy. I had just begun debating the merits of a route home that did not involve the 405 when we entered the open space of my stable’s arena.
In one alarming, I-might-die moment, time slowed as I flew through the air and Spartacus thundered past. And how magnificent he was! Silhouetted against the mountains and still-purple sky, his tail like a flag, head high, and blowing like a dragon, Spartacus lived up to his warrior’s name (at least in looks).
When it came, the landing---and the resulting carrot-snap of bone---barely registered. But when I tried to stand, the pain sent me down again. I came up with a new plan. Step one: Get a hold of myself. Step two: Catch Spartacus and put him away. Step three: Find help, because I really, really needed an ice pack and some Vetrap.
A few breaths later, I tucked my throbbing, swollen right hand under the opposite armpit and crouch-walked toward Spartacus, who was snorting and prancing outside the arena gate. Thankfully, another rider, Mary, had spied the loose gelding and come to my aid. She and I risked a glimpse at my hand---my ring finger now made an unnatural right angle. Gasping with horror and nausea, I shoved it back under my arm, and we three shuffled toward Spartacus’s stall. When we were close enough, I asked Mary if she could put him away, then I found myself a plastic lawn chair and fainted.
When I came to, it was evident that I would have to be taken to urgent care. At the clinic, I fainted again. Despite my repeated assurances that, no, Spartacus had not kicked me in the head, and, no, my noggin had not tested the ground’s density, my new habit made the state of my brain suspect. So I was packed off to a hospital emergency room, where I lost consciousness a third time.
It was my love of riding that saved me from a CT scan and other tortures. I was alert and cogent, cracking jokes as my mangled finger was manhandled … until the doctor stated that there’d be no riding for six to eight weeks. That’s when I sat up, looked the man dead in the eye, declared not riding unacceptable, and proceeded to pass out again.
My little display of horse crazy confirmed what the ER doctor had begun to suspect. I hadn’t hit my head but instead was displaying what amounts to the human body’s opt-out response, called vasovagal syncope. A fancy term for fainting, a vasovagal syncope is a sudden drop in heart rate and blood pressure caused by emotional distress, the sight of blood or other triggers.
That settled, I was whisked off to xray, where it was determined that a specialist needed to tend to my fracture. So I was fitted with a splint, shot up with morphine (yes, in that order) and chauffeured home by my sainted husband.
The next day, during my consultation with the orthopedic surgeon, I asked if I’d still be able to ride in a dressage schooling show two weeks hence. When he chuckled, I thought he just appreciated my moxie. Or maybe he didn’t understand the question. It was just a finger! It felt fine, safe in its splint. And
besides, two hands are not mandatory for riding. Shouldn’t I just be able to steer with my legs and seat?
As it turns out, breaking a bone is no joke, even if it’s just a finger. And painkillers take longer to wear off than I realized. I was going to require surgery, two screws and a couple months of physical therapy. No, I wouldn’t be riding again anytime soon.
Despite nearly 30 years in the saddle, with several unintentional dismounts, plus a couple of car accidents, I had miraculously remained ER-, broken-bone and surgery-free. Secretly, I had thought I was invincible, especially when it came to horses.
I wasn’t. It would be easy to blame Spartacus for the accident. But it would be just as logical to blame the fly mask that may have affected his vision, the distant sound of farm equipment or simply the brisk weather. The truth is, whether at the barn or on the freeway, complacency will get you every time.
Being among horses is second nature for me. But it was precisely that ease which lulled me into forgetting that they are creatures capable of bodychecking one into the ground with enough force to break bones. I had no one to blame but myself. I’d foolishly brushed off Spartacus’s warning signs that he was nervous and then scared. Thus, he’d taken matters into his own hooves---silly woman at the end of the lead rope be damned.
I now concede that I’m not invincible, but I may have been born under a lucky star. Things that morning could have been much worse than a broken finger. Still, my weeks of recovery provided ample time for reflection. As riders, we develop such a bond with horses. They become companions and partners who, we believe, would never hurt us, who we know as well as our own hearts. Both of these things are true, and both of these things are not true. Remembering that duality every time we interact with them is as much a part of horsemanship as anything else.