By Natasha Rombeck
This story is part of the series “Clear Eyes, Sound Mind, Halt, Salute.” Focusing on equestrian mental health, these articles come from dressage riders across the country who wish to share their struggles and triumphs. With so much focus on the physical health and fitness of riders, it is important not to neglect the mental health aspect of becoming a great equestrian. We hope these stories and bits of advice assure you that you’re not alone and inspire you to push on through all challenges.
In January 2007, I became paralyzed on the right side of my body from the neck down. The cause, we found out a few weeks later, was Multiple Sclerosis. Thanks to my own stubbornness, and with the help of my husband, I gained back the use of my right side.
However, to this day, I still have no feeling in my right leg from the hip down. I also have lingering problems with my right hand grip and fine motor skills, along with the usual MS “stuff” others with this disease can tell you about. Previous to all of this occurring, I was a trail rider that, as a little girl, wanted to bring home a ribbon for jumping. Why jumping? I have no idea.
The moment my neurologist told me I had a progressive type of MS and I should “write poetry and paint”, I decided I was going to learn how to not just jump, but three-day event. A short stint as a professional lawn dart (due to the madness of trying to jump with basically one leg and damaged balance nerves) led to multiple injuries, and eventually a broken pelvis. I hadn’t just broken my pelvis, I had broken something else inside me. Every time I tried to get on my horse I would start shaking and crying out of fear. I had to have someone put me on a lead just so I could walk a lap. I ended up selling this dream horse, because he deserved better.
After a short period of time I started thinking about when I was a little girl back in Germany. I grew up riding Haflingers and Gypsy Cobs, and they had always put up with so much of our nonsense. Since I couldn’t just walk away from my love for horses, I decided I was going to try to find a Haflinger or Gypsy Cob and get back to riding again. This time focusing on dressage, as to try and keep all four feet on the ground as much as possible.
Since both these breeds are very common back in Germany, I had no idea how challenging it was going to be to find either breed tall enough to not make me, a 5’9” rider, look like I was walking the horse while sitting on top of it, and have to potentially widen my search to out of state. We looked at quite a few Gypsies, but I had almost given up, when one day I was on Facebook, and an ad for a homely-looking Gypsy gelding popped up on some horse trader’s page. He did not fit this person’s usual stock. Something inside me told me I NEEDED to go have a look.
My husband, being every horsewoman’s dream of support, jumped in the truck with me, and we drove nearly 3 hours with no info on this horse. When we got there, they pulled this shaggy, dirty, defeated-looking horse out of a muddy pen with 20 other horses. They simply said he was a trade-in, and had no further info on him.
When I touched him, and looked into his eyes, I found a kindred spirit. One with a past; a past of abuse, uncertainty, and feeling unwanted. I looked at my husband and he knew what was coming next. A few days later I drove back to the trader’s with the trailer and brought Banner home to a boarding facility. I’d like to think we bonded immediately. At least, I had never felt anything like this before in my life.
Yet I was still too scared to actually ride him. I had friends ride him and I paid people to ride him, but I was scared to death to get on him. It was after I finally started working with a therapist, five years after bringing him into my life, that she made me realize I wasn’t actually afraid to get on him or to ride. She told me that not riding was the tip of the branches of the tree. The excuses to not get on, like “oh it’s too windy”, were the branches – and we needed to figure out what the roots were.
If it could have hit me in the back of the head as soon as she said it, it would have. My dad passed away shortly after I broke my pelvis. It was a devastating loss to me, as he was my best friend, my first supporter of riding horses, and my biggest cheerleader. I realized after she said we needed to figure out what had started the fear, that it correlated to losing him. I had put together that I was feeling like I was “forgetting” or “betraying” my dad if I just kept riding, that I had just moved on and losing him wasn’t a big deal. Subconsciously I must have replaced those feelings with anxiety about riding in general. After we talked some more, I told her he would honestly be so disappointed I gave up just because he wasn’t there any longer. I felt a huge weight lift off me
All of a sudden – I am telling you, the very next day – I went out to see Banner and got on him, and didn’t think twice about it.
It has now been almost three years since that first ride. Banner and I moved to a small dressage training facility almost two years ago, and have decided to try something new. After only seven months at this facility, Banner and I entered our first recognized dressage show. I want to mention, it has now been seven years since I first brought him home, and at that time he had only been gelded for 2 years. Through the very small US Gypsy community I’ve been able to gather information about his past, and learned he had not really been started under saddle prior to my purchasing him. At the time of this show last year he was 16-years-old, and had the education of a 4-year-old.
He was so brave. There were hurricane force winds blowing pop-up tents by us, and my usually-spooky horse listened to my voice telling him that I had him and nothing was going to hurt him. He never flinched, all weekend. We took the rest of the season off, but this year entered in this same show again. Again, he was a rock star. He held his own at 17-years-old, in classes with about 14 other adult amateurs, and his scores would leave him ranked third against some really fancy horses!
Banner makes quite the entrance when we have gone to the shows. People stop us when walking around grazing, wanting to say hi to him. I’ve heard from our vet, who watched us one day, that people all around were pointing out Banner to each other. There is always one thing I tell people when they say “he looks so pretty” or whatever, I tell them his personality, the thing inside him that makes him “The Banner”, is so much better than just the way the outside of him looks.
When we met, we were both broken. Together we have learned to trust again, in each other and in others, that they are in fact going to be there for us. I know when there have been times he has sensed I was going to pass out, so he would come over to me and lean against me so I could steady myself again. There have been times when this brave little man has gotten nervous, or spooked at something, and when I start scratching his neck, even while on him, and remind him out loud that I have him, and I will never let anyone hurt him again, and in response, he relaxes. It’s actually pretty funny now when Banner spooks at footprints in the sand or steaming poop in the indoor during the winter as we canter by. I giggle. I never would have thought that would be possible, not even three years ago. I honestly don’t think I would have believed it unless my husband didn’t catch one of the times on video. Just cantering on a 20 meter circle, and the second time around Banner sees something and does a head duck, shake, and buck, and I giggle, and we keep going until we transition to the trot on the other side of the circle.
So with all of this I would like to tell people who have had injuries, or illnesses that have changed their outlook on riding, don’t let it. You will adapt and find new ways to do the things you love with your horse, even if it looks a little different. The ribbons for dressage are definitely prettier than for jumping. For those who are facing fear after an accident, it’s ok; you’re not alone. I am pretty fortunate to have found Banner, and to have the support that I have both from my husband and an amazing therapist. Just like with horses though, I don’t think there’s a “one size fits all” that can fix things. But I know speaking for myself, straight roads are pretty boring, it’s the winding, hilly roads that are the most fun to travel on.