By Susan Altman
“Do you think you’ll want to ride again?” This question is presented to me as I am recovering from surgery to put a plate and screws in my leg after a tibial plateau fracture that resulted from a riding accident. Well, a dismounting accident, to be more precise.
I was riding my mustang, Mac, bareback on the trails on my property; he’s one of two horses I keep at home. It was a beautiful day, the Friday of Memorial Day weekend in 2021. We were toodling along the trails that we’d ridden on thousands of times over the years, the trails that also serve as a large wooded turnout for the horses during the day after I finish riding. The neighbor’s cows were out on the pasture next door. Cows are not a problem for this horse; they actually hang out next to each other on opposite sides of the fence sometimes. We’d also done some easy cow work over the years, both in clinics and in open range grazing areas. Something spooked him though, and he’d had a bucking fit, and I said out loud to him, “If you just stop, I’ll get off!” He stopped. I got off. Because of where we’d ended up after his bucking fit, my only option was to dismount from the off-side, which spooked him again. On my way down, he ran into me, and I landed not squarely on my feet, but with my left leg cocked in such a way that my femur broke my tibia. He took off for the irrigated pasture in front of the house. I tried to stand up. Nope.
My husband works from home and was in his office. On the one day that I mounted up without my phone, I had an accident. Well, at least that was the same day that I didn’t close the trail gate. My screams to my husband for help went unheard. I decided that since I couldn’t stand or walk, and hopping one-legged back to the barn or house was an impossible effort of over 1,000 feet, I had no choice but to drag myself backward on my butt using my hands and arms to propel myself backward, one scoot at a time. My leg was useless and the slight bumps it endured with each drag were nauseatingly painful. Living in the high desert meant I had to drag myself through sand, which made the effort harder, but also over volcanic rocks that would not move. My hands got scraped up quickly, and I had to take a lot of breaks.
The good news about making the lazy decision to not close the gate (after all, I only planned for a quick 30-minute walk on the trails, what could go wrong?!) is that in running back to the pasture in front of the house, Mac notified my husband that I was missing. Of course, he tried to call me. Of course, I didn’t have my phone. Realizing that something was wrong, my husband caught Mac and put him back in his stall, got in the car, and drove out back to try to find me. Ahhhh, my knight in a blue car. He whisked me to urgent care.
Fast-forward to being on post-surgery bed rest. My recovery bedroom was upstairs so I had to master crutches and stairs in short order. Other than doctor’s appointments and personal hygiene needs, I was confined to bed for four weeks with orders to put no weight on my leg, not even letting my foot touch the ground. I had to strap on a brace every time I got out of bed. Everything having to do with my leg was painful, and I couldn’t get comfortable. Keeping my leg elevated by stacking pillows under it hurt. I couldn’t roll on my side, and as a side-sleeper, it was very frustrating. The edges of the ace bandages I wrapped my leg in were driving me nuts. My leg around the incision area was a strange combination of numb but also overly sensitive. Showering was difficult, painful, and nauseating; thank goodness we have a walk-in shower with a bench, but it is downstairs. Dodging a cat and three dogs, while managing crutches on stairs became an exercise in timing, coordination, and patience. For a person who has always been very active with work, farm chores, and riding multiple horses per day, laying about with the sole purpose of healing felt like I was being selfish. I structured my days around doing three at-home physical therapy (PT) sessions per day and working from my new “bed rest” office with boxes of files on the ground, a bed tray as a desk, and my laptop ever handy.
Feeling badly that my husband had to cover all of the farm chores, and realizing that recovery would take longer than I thought, I sent my other horse, Pony (a Welsh Cob x Morgan pony) to my trainer, Mari Valceschini of Alliance Equestrian, while I recovered from surgery. Pony would benefit from being in full training while I was rehabbing, my husband would benefit from having one fewer horse to worry about, and I would benefit by knowing her education would continue in good hands. Mac would be lonely without his girlfriend, but we have three goats who would keep him company and Pony would be back someday.
Did I want to ride again? Recovery and physical therapy seemed long and slow, and at that point, the thought of riding seemed impossible. I still wasn’t ready to answer the question. I started every morning with a heating pad on my knee, followed by a massage to loosen up the tissue, then an hour of at-home PT. I went through that cycle three times per day. Foot swirls and pumps. Easy enough. Leg rotations in and out. Not too bad. Leg lifts. How do I engage my quads again? My brain had forgotten how to send messages to my leg instructing it how to function. I stared at my leg, willing it to lift straight up from the hip. I couldn’t figure it out. I did the movement with my good leg to remind myself. Tried again with my injured leg. Engage the quads, lift! Still not working. I took the loop I used to help me lift my leg from the foot to get out of bed (legs are heavier than you think when your muscles don’t know how to use them) and put it to work helping me to do my PT leg lifts. A little better. “Better is better,” my therapist would tell me. Eventually, one of the PT exercises I was prescribed to start bending my knee was wall slides; “Let gravity work for you,” my physical therapist said. They were my least favorite exercise and excruciating. I’d have my husband take pictures of me to see how far I’d come. I was bending my knee as much as I could, my leg shaking, me swearing while remembering a MythBusters episode that said swearing lessens the perception of pain. I’d look at the photos, dismayed. Was I even making progress?
When it came time in my rehab process to try to mimic walking by weighting the leg at 25% and going through the motions of taking a walk stride, I couldn’t figure it out. Again, I used my good leg to try to understand what my injured leg was supposed to do. My brain wasn’t sending the right signals. How do I bend my ankle to put my heel on the ground, roll over my foot to propel myself, and move forward? Wait, my knee has to bend at some point. When does my knee bend? When does my hip close? What happens first? I slowly figured it out and, with the layout of our house, was able to do laps around the downstairs while still supporting myself with crutches. I’m sure the physical therapist would not have approved, but I took to wearing flip-flops because the sound of when the shoe would hit my heel after pushing off with my toes gave me good feedback on if I was using full range of motion. I was regularly going up to the barn with my husband for night check, and one evening, I walked and lifted one of the crutches off the ground to test my leg strength and balance without both crutches. Could I do it? Yes!!!
It was the summer of the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, and my husband kept me company while we watched the equestrian events from my recovery bed. I love the human-interest stories the announcers tell while doing color commentary about the horse and rider pairs, and I remember that there was a dressage rider (apologies, I cannot remember her name or where she was from) who was competing after having been in a coma. Her story gave me hope. She had been in a coma for goodness-sake, and from a riding accident no less. If she had fear, she conquered it. If she had pain, she overcame it. If she had to learn how to walk and ride again, she did it. She was at the Olympics! Surely, there was hope for me, too. Did I want to ride again? Watching the Olympics gave me the stir of an answer….maybe?
Once I was feeling more stable and was able to drive again (another huge milestone), I thought it was time to visit Pony out at the boarding barn. She had been in full training with Mari, and I wanted to see her go. It was tiring to be out and about, but also exciting to see the world outside of my property and my PT’s office. Short visits gradually got longer, and instead of just watching for a few minutes, barn mates were kind enough to bring Pony in, gather my tack, and I started tacking her up by myself. That graduated to me feeling comfortable to sit with my straight or half-bent leg and watch a lesson. One day, I brought out my helmet, “just in case.”
That “just in case” day was September 23, 2021, my first ride back. I had to mount from the off-side, which Pony was well-accustomed to, and I don’t even know if I put my feet in the stirrups. Mari led me around on a Pony pony ride, and we did a couple laps at the walk. I hadn’t told my husband ahead of time what my plan was. Of course, I wouldn’t tell my doctor or physical therapist, either. I had to follow my own intuition to tell me when the time was right, and that is something you cannot plan for. If I wanted to do it, I would; if I didn’t want to do it, I wouldn’t. But I wouldn’t know until I was in the moment. One lead-line ride turned into two, turned into a few, turned into me being comfortable enough to walk on my own, then a tiny bit of trot, and eventually canter. Did I want to ride again? Yes. But how much and how far did I want to go?
I grew up riding hunter/jumpers, and since then have dabbled in many things – eventing, dressage, competitive trail, dressage, horsemanship clinics, basic cow work, lots and lots of trail riding, dressage – I was sort of all over the place. I hadn’t committed myself to one thing, ever. Growing up, and as an adult re-rider, I wasn’t the person with the money to devote to getting a made horse who could teach me the ropes. I didn’t have the funds for a lot of training and showing. I did what I could when I could, mostly on Thoroughbreds.
I also have an independent streak that led me to get my own farm 20 years ago so I could have that freedom and independence to make whatever decisions about my horses and my riding that I wanted to. Having had Pony in full training while I recovered and slowly eased my way back into the saddle showed me how much more progress she could make, and how much more progress we could make together, when I devoted my riding education to one discipline. During my 30+ years in the saddle, I gathered a lot of tools from a lot of disciplines and self-study, but I felt it was time to settle into one thing and learn as much as I could. Within weeks I decided I wanted to find a schoolmaster. Mari started making calls.
The first call Mari made was to Amanda Olson in Washington. Two of the horses in the Alliance barn had come from Amanda’s, and she had a good reputation of representing nice horses for adult amateurs. I pored over her website and daydreamed about what I might find. Meantime, a clinician who regularly visited Alliance said she had another client who had a great amateur’s horse for sale – a white Andalusian who had an excellent temperament and was a solid citizen. “Nope. I don’t want an Andalusian, and I don’t want a white horse.” I love all horses, and dark dapple greys are my favorite color to look at, but I didn’t want the chore of keeping a white horse clean, worrying about melanomas, and I didn’t fancy their movement. I actually never wanted a warmblood either, so I wasn’t looking for a certain breed exclusively; I just felt like I knew what I didn’t want. Mari suggested we go look at the white horse anyway, since I needed to start looking and getting a feel for riding other horses, his character had been vouched for by a trusted clinician, and it is good to make contacts so if that trainer knew of any other horses for sale, we’d hear about them. At the same time, Amanda had a few horses for consideration; Mari and I decided that it was better to have more options than fewer so we decided to visit Amanda’s first in order to see multiple horses, and then if that didn’t work out, we would go visit the white horse.
When Mari and I were driving to Amanda’s from the Seattle airport, she gave me the summary of the three horses we were going to look at. Based on conversations Mari and Amanda had about my experience, skill level, and goals, Amanda had three options for us – two geldings and a mare; all had appropriate training and temperament, though with varying levels of show experience. I’ve never been a mare person per se, and Pony was the only mare I’d ever ridden. She wasn’t “mare-ish,” and she was actually a lot of fun, so I wasn’t opposed to a mare, but I wouldn’t purposefully shop for one, either. I was so excited, yet nervous. I hoped that one of the horses would be “the one” but I also didn’t want to get my hopes up and make the wrong decision in haste. Having had mostly green horses, I wasn’t sure I’d know what I was looking for in a schoolmaster. Shopping with a trusted professional would help me make a better decision.
We walked down Amanda’s barn aisle. Three horses were braided and waiting for us in the crossties. All three were white. Goodness gracious! I specifically didn’t want a white horse! The youngest horse, a Lusitano gelding, was still a lightly-dappled grey; he had a long forelock and a cheeky personality, which I’ve loved in the past but which has also gotten me into trouble. The warmblood mare was a flea-bitten grey; she was tall and leggy, and didn’t seem really interested in me personally, but had a professional and regal air about her. The other gelding, a Hanoverian x PRE, was just white. Plain white, with a very faint remnant dappling over his haunches and hocks. He looked at me with his big brown eyes and seemed interested in and focused on me. Well, I’m here to ride, so let’s ride – color be damned.
The horses were ridden for us first so we could watch them go, then Mari would get on, then I would get on if Mari deemed them suitable. As promised, all were appropriate for me, so I got to ride all three. Here I am, not 100% recovered after surgery, with my knee not fully bendable, scar tissue still bothering me, and having never ridden any horse of the quality and level of these three. And remember, my current riding horse is actually a somewhat green pony whose gaits are much smaller, and we had spent much of our time on the trails goofing off over the years. While I’ve ridden for 30+ years, I’ve never specialized in dressage so my skill level did not match up with these horses. I was looking for a schoolmaster who could teach me the finer points of dressage.
The Lusitano, though gorgeous and very capable with professional riders, proved to not be a match for my lack of finesse. Having ridden smaller horses over the years, and now Pony, the warmblood mare was just too tall for me to feel comfortable on.
The white horse was the right size, but I felt like I could barely ride him. I could hardly canter him! Any combination of my lack of strength post-surgery, my lack of ever riding an FEI horse to know the subtleties of aids, my obvious inability to ride from my seat, and/or my general suckiness as a rider was on display. But he was fun in a general sense, and I felt safe. We did my inexperienced version of a medium trot; I think I exclaimed “I’m flying!!!!” Amanda asked if I wanted to try piaffe and passage. Ummmm….okay? I had no idea how I would do that, but she came over with a whip to serve as a ground person, and he did his job. I was giddy. His name was Emperador – “emperor” in Spanish. He had been imported from Spain and hadn’t yet found his person.
I dismounted and the four of us – Amanda, her rider, Mari, and I – stood around talking while I gave him sugar cubes to thank him for being tolerant of me. I had left the reins over his neck and the four of us started walking toward the arena gate. Emperador followed me. Amanda and her rider looked at each other. We all smiled.
Since shipping Emperador to Alliance following a snow storm (and with Mari’s business partner and her husband hitching a ride because the Seattle airport had closed), I clearly had an answer to the question. Did I want to ride again? A resounding yes.
As Emperador (also known as Santo, because he is a saint) and I got to know each other, I became more focused with my goals. First, I just wanted to figure him out because he’s tricky about some things. He is the sweetest, loveliest, funnest, safest horse, but he doesn’t always like to walk and he’s actually quite hot under saddle (though you’d never guess it just looking at him in how he goes about his daily life). Once I felt we had a modicum of respectability and wouldn’t make fools of ourselves, I decided I wanted to show.
Before we even got to show season, though, I decided I wanted to go for my USDF Bronze Medal. Pony had been in full training since my accident and she had come along nicely, so I rode her to get my First Level scores. I rode Emperador to get my Second and Third Level scores, and between the two horses I earned my Bronze Medal in the first two shows of the season in 2022. I did National Dressage Pony Cup classes with Pony at Second Level, and had a lot of fun. Emperador and I finished as reserve champions at Third Level at the Oregon Dressage Society Championships. It was a year of a lot of achievements, not just in terms of ribbons, but more importantly of learning.
This year, my goal was to earn my USDF Silver Medal. Moving up to Fourth Level and Prix St. Georges was challenging. My first show was a whirlwind and an experience in learning how to ride a test where everything comes up so quickly. Emperador knows all the tricks and let me know I wasn’t riding the four- and three-tempis to his liking, so at our first show he took over and did whatever he wanted, which was mostly ones with some twos thrown in for good measure. I came out of the arena and a gentleman commented on what a lovely test it was. I laughed because I imagined it was; it just wasn’t what we were supposed to be doing! We didn’t get any scores toward our Silver Medal, though we were pretty close.
At our second show, when we were supposed to be walking, we did a combination of piaffe and passage at Fourth Level instead; the judge was good-humored about it and recognized it by saying he had lovely piaffe and passage, though those were not required at the level, and we got a commensurate score on that movement. At that show, we did get one qualifying score at Fourth Level and one at Prix St. Georges….barely.
At our third show, I only had one class at each level and thankfully earned the scores I needed for my Silver Medal. Not only that, but I had a personal best of over 69% in our Fourth Level test! I just about screamed when Mari told me that not only had I achieved my goal, but I earned such a high score. Emperador’s walk is still a work in progress, and some days we can get the relaxation and some days we can’t. When we get it, the walk is good, and that day the score reflected it.
The universe works in strange ways. Had I not had my accident and surgery, I would still probably be happily goofing off on the trails, dabbling in dressage here and there, and not taking anything very seriously. But I was forced into making a decision, confronting my dreams, living up to my potential. What could have possibly been a tragedy that squashed my passion instead turned out to be the impetus to reach higher than I ever thought possible. I did want to ride again. I do want to ride again. And I’m not done yet.