Don’t Let 2020 Break Your Spirit

Amber Luce and Theodore. Photo courtesy of Cortney Drake.

There will always be someone better, a horse that has more scope, a rider that is more brave, or someone that has more backing. It’s never going to be about the race that pushes you to greatness. It will always be about the steps that get you there and the steps you take even when times are hard.

In 2019 a snowboarding accident put me in a wheelchair. I sustained injuries consisting of two blown ACLs, two fractured tibial plateaus, two dislocated feet with multiple bone fractures within the feet and damage to many of the joints within the foot. I had several pins and plates put into my feet, my ACLs were sewn back together and my tibias were reattached to the plateaus. I was in casts nearly the entire length of my legs and I could hardly move.

I lost half of my barn; each client left for their own reasons, but they all left within just a few weeks to a few months of my accident. Everyone in this horse world who is a trainer knows we give our hearts and souls to our clients, but some clients come and go. Some stay loyal to a fault. The injuries I sustained were very severe, with 14 hours in surgery just to repair my feet. It was unknown whether or not I would be in a wheelchair the rest of my life.

I can understand why many of my boarders, clients, and employees decided it was time to go.

Photo courtesy of Amber Luce.

I’m in this industry through thick and thin; helping horses and their humans is my passion. I own and operate a 40-stall barn with a very large beginner friendly school program with three instructors in total, 15 school horses, and five of my own. In 2017 I became an active member of USEA, and in 2018 I qualified for regionals at Training level aboard Theodore (Teddi) and completed three Beginner Novice events on my other horse Charlie. In 2018 I also qualified for the AECs, 2019 my accident kept me down, and in 2020, thinking my career in eventing might be over, I became an active competitor in the USDF earning my two Third level qualifying scores in hopes of getting my bronze medal this year.

However the start of 2020 had other plans. The majority of the shows have been at a stand still so my push for the bronze medal will need wait. Covid-19 put a stop to everything. Teddi and I were able to complete our Third level scores before shows shut down, but still need our Second level and First level for the medal.

2020 has not been a very forgiving year, with lessons canceled due to Covid-19, show season nearly non-existent, employees being scarce due to high unemployment payouts and business closures due to rules and regulations under the Covid-19 laws. I’m fortunate for the half of the barn that stayed during my down time, the clients who waited patiently for me to heal and start back into their weekly riding lessons. The clients who purchased horses of their own so they could continue on a greater horse adventure. The friends who helped me recover. The few incredible people including my assistant instructor/barn manager, working student, best friends, farriers, and my parents all steam rolling ahead to take on all of the barn tasks and help keep things afloat while I was unable to walk in 2019. Now facing 2020 another uphill battle and my team of support and myself still are yet to give up.

I am still regaining my ability to walk. Some days I really struggle and have a lot of pain, some days I feel good and think maybe I can run or walk fast again, maybe even clean stalls and carry grain bags, but the good days are far and few. I stay strong mentally and battle any negative thoughts. I do my best to ride my young horses, keep my clients horses going, teach lessons, and slowly repair the rips and tears of 2019.

Despite the huge physical set backs, and only one year out of a wheelchair, I press forward. This September, Theodore and I were able to drop back into the event world.

In winter of 2018, Theodore also had surgery and spent 2019 recovering and rebuilding his strength and stamina. To say we’re a team is an understatement.

Theodore is a very picky Trakehner gelding who is a bit quirky. In 2015 he was a gift of a lifetime. Theodore was diagnosed with kissing spines that should have retired him in 2013. In 2015, his owner and a few friends of mine helped make him my own. I took him in and continued to get him healthy. After lots of time building his back muscle and slowly developing him a bit differently, we made our way as a team into the event world.

Photo courtesy of Cortney Drake.

After a fabulous 2018 show season, Teddi had a bone chip removed and was on the mend just as I was. At the start of Teddi’s rehab I had tremendous help from a friend who boards at my barn. After months of her hand walking him, Teddi was given the go ahead from our vet to start back in the tack. I was also given permission to try standing and start walking if I could. It has been a long slow road just to get this far.

Teddi and I took lessons with a long standing mentor of mine, Caryn Bujnowski, who helped build our confidence back. I would haul in for lessons, bareback, as I couldn’t yet get my foot in a riding boot let alone a stirrup. She helped me overcome my fear of just riding. My body had taken over my mind. Where I never use to have fear, all of a sudden fear was there. I would shake just sitting on a horse.

Later I learned that my fear stemmed from my lack of ability to dismount. Still to this day I need to use a block or help to guide myself off the back of a horse. Even through the endless shaking and fear, Teddi and I moved onward. We attended a dressage clinic, trail rode, occasionally jumped over a few fences. It wasn’t until end of spring 2020 that I started asking more from both of us.

In April of this year, I was able to put weight in the stirrups and had enough mobility in my feet to try jumping. At the end of May we went cross country schooling for the first time back since championships in 2018. It was terrifying and wonderful. Teddi is a very looky, spooky horse and he has always received confidence and reassurance from me over the fences. With my accident and still having a touch of fear, I needed him to help me out.

Starting our journey over the next three months leading up to the show, Teddi had a LOT of refusals. My fault mostly for not having the confidence he needed from me as his partner, and I was still figuring out how to use these silly legs of mine that have severe nerve damage and lack of strength. By August, Teddi’s confidence was coming back and his stride was opening up. I was feeling more secure in the tack and knew there were hopes of running at an event once again.

Teddi and I were able to build our strength together and now are back out there doing our best. This horse gives me his heart, body, and mind. When we would finish our rides each and every time he would hold his neck tight for me and slowly lower me to the ground so I could dismount. As I would sit down holding the reins he always puts his head in my chest or lap and waits for his kiss and scratch. He’s a one of a kind and he’s my buddy.

Photo courtesy of Cortney Drake.

This late into 2020 an event here in Washington opened up. I signed up for Training level in the Open division and I asked a few close friends to help as my support crew for our first event back.

I’m still struggling with walking and I wasn’t sure how my feet or knees were going to hold up around the cross country course. I asked my support crew to be strategically placed in case I needed to retire on course. If I needed help getting off or if something went wrong their assistance would be helpful since they knew my injuries and knew of my situation.

Heading into warm up Theodore came to life. I could feel him take on a different shape and he knew all the things we had done in the months prior finally made sense. He was back out ready to give his very best in all of his efforts. At the start box he was jigging and extremely excited, the count down began and we left the start gate.

His gallop was fast, his balance was quick, and his jump was powerful. Fence number 4AB was an up bank to a down bank, four strides to a roll top.

This is where I knew I would be tested, the joints in my feet don’t flex well and my knees move different now. I wasn’t sure if I would be able to land off the combo and secure my leg to fence five. Teddi was on fire, coming into five he and I had a little scramble and I slipped onto his neck. I could feel him hold his neck tight like he use to for me, and for that I was able to get back in the tack.

The rest of the course was brilliant. Teddi was so incredibly happy to be back out galloping and jumping. I was just happy to be able to ride. We crossed the finish line one second over on time I found out later. I hadn’t tracked the time on my watch, I didn’t need to know the time. I wanted to be out there with my buddy enjoying the sport, loving the life I get to live. Enjoying the recovery him and I made together.

We completed!

There are ups and downs all around each of our lives. There are moments of greatness, times that life challenges our weaknesses and one of the gifts about life, is that we never have to give up. Each person can push forward, there will always be something that makes things feel like they can’t go on, but it just takes a small step at a time in the right direction to eventually get where you really want to go.

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