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A Second Chance

What happens when you and your helmet part company during a fall? After a very dicey spell in the hospital and a long recovery, this rider recounts a lesson learned the hard way.

lizdavisIt was June 10, 1994. I was working with my coach, schooling the Dutch Warmblood mare I dreamed of riding at the dressage Regionals, then nationally, then . . . And I was wearing a helmet. But since my safety-conscious days as a teenager in Kay Meredith's Tuesday-night dressage course at Meredith Manor, I'd gradually become more casual, liking the elegant look of big-time riders and trainers who schooled bareheaded and showed without chinstraps.

My mare bucked that morning, they say. I fell off. My little hard hat, unfastened, fell, too. But we fell in different places.

The ambulance came. People prayed for me. The hospital staff filled out a death report. But a part of me remained. Two weeks later, I was discharged. One doctor told my husband, "See what you get in six months." Another said I should never ride again.

I came home and went to sleep, I think. I have no clear memories of the next months. I talked funny, walked funny, couldn't remember, couldn't even think the way I used to. Simple tasks took hours. My hearing was different. One eye was closed. The complex ideas that govern our lives-time, space, movement-were a jumbled mess inside my mind. But I found that if I used a calendar and watched the sun, I could figure things out.

My motivation was still there. And I used everything I knew about training horses and riders to retrain myself. To walk, I had to adjust how I held my body, had to teach my legs and feet to respond to what I wanted. I used a little battery-powered metronome to relearn rhythm, walking everywhere I could, trying to even my stride. As I worked, sometimes I'd hear Kay's voice, urging "Forward! Push, push, push!"

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I spent hours and hours retraining my mind to think and speak. I read. I prayed. I spent thousands of dollars on therapy. (We sold the mare, and another horse, to help pay for rehab. We still have mountains of bills.)

But no riding. The doctors kept telling me, "no riding."

After four years, I went back to work.

After five years, I felt as if I was ready to ride-and I'd read research that I thought supported a careful return. But traumatic accidents affect everyone connected to the victim, so I talked it over with my family first.

My grown daughter was the most fearful; she said, "OK, as long as it's a Shetland pony and someone is holding it." My son, who was twelve, was OK with it. My husband, knowing my struggles to feel happy and whole again, just said, "Keep yourself safe."

First I just wanted to get back in the saddle and see what would happen. With a trusted friend/riding instructor at my side and a borrowed helmet buckled securely, I climbed on. Incredibly, the body I'd had to reteach the most basic skills-telling time, finding my toothbrush, recognizing my children-remembered how to ride. I'd lost some of the language, so my body didn't always respond to detailed commands, but it did to a simple "Canter your horse." Once I got going, my friend said, "It's as if you never stepped off."

I'd avoided talking to doctors until then. But right after that first ride, I told my neurologist what I'd done, and that I wanted to keep on. She said, "You must decide what makes your life worth living"-which I took as an affirmation.

I researched ASTM/SEI-approved helmets and bought a Troxel. I had my old boots reconditioned. A friend who'd kept my saddle for me brought it back.

Then I went shopping for a couple of trail horses my son and I could plod around on. A public stable had some for sale; I came home with two. Mine, Dixie, was a six-year-old Appendix Quarter Horse: small, quiet, with a wonderful gentle spirit.

We walked for the first two or three months. Slowly, together, we grew. The muscle on the bottom of Dixie's neck is no longer the biggest one, and she chews the bit. We've been taking lessons. And on October 1, 2000, we did two introductory tests in a schooling show.

That's right! We showed. I still have a few problems processing commands, but my body knows what to do. (Kay Meredith developed a seat on me that just won't quit.) My daughter's made up special "support" buttons for friends and family to wear. We earned a 68 and a 74 percent; the scribe told me later that the judge nearly gave me a 10 on one trot.

And I want the whole world to know that perching an unfastened helmet up on top of your head is the most lame-brained thing any horseman has ever done-because you could end up lamebrained forever.

Liz Davis has come a long way in seven years, according to Nancy Sobba, her instructor at Lucky Acres Stables, a boarding and training barn near Liz's home in Jacksonville, Arkansas, where about 40 dressage students ride. "When Liz first came to me I was apprehensive, since I had heard she would never be allowed to ride again," says Sobba. "I was concerned for her safety, but wanted to help. Her first ride was walking with me leading the horse. Every time she rode her body would remember more and automatically do what the muscles remembered. Sometimes I would draw the exercises and then she could do them. Cantering was a milestone. Now I can nit-pick over subtle weight aids and body symmetry. Now Liz now has more feel and awareness of the horse's slight messages to her than 90 percent of the others I teach. I think that intuitiveness will keep her safe."

This spring Liz's family, friends, and (non-riding) neighbors donated labor and materials to build her a dressage ring at home.

Liz, in turn, is helping others, having developed a deeper understanding of what it's like to struggle with simple tasks. She's teaching therapeutic riding at Hearts & Hooves, Inc. - a new operation located at the stable where she fell.

This article first appeared in the December, 2000 issue of Practical Horseman magazine.

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