It was one of those accidents that is over in a flash. One moment everything is fine, and then – poof! – everything is not. You’re flat on your back, or you’re through the windshield, or you’re lying in a ditch. Cars crash, buildings collapse, ice gives way, horses buck. Accidents happen – very, very fast.
Three days ago, I had one of those accidents. I was riding – going hell-bent-for-leather down a forest path – when my horse broke into a fast gallop. He kind of bolted, actually. Bad horse. But I wasn’t scared or anything. I asked him to slow down – reined him firmly but gently, sat down in the saddle, said “ho”, all the quiet calming stuff you do to signal a horse to take it easy – and he said no. He said no by throwing his ass and back in the air and flicking me off like I was a fly.
One moment: everything was fine. Next moment: everything was not.
I’ve been told many times by many doctors that I should not be riding. I have been diagnosed with severe osteoporosis, and words like “fragile” and “brittle” have been applied regularly to me by various bone specialists, for the last decade or more. My current specialist tells me that I have “extreme risk of fracture” in my back, hips, and wrists. About five years ago, she took a back x-ray to establish a baseline, and discovered that I had three compression fractures in my spine. She freaked. “Were you in a car accident?” she said, before putting me on a ferociously aggressive bone-building parathyroid replacement, that I had to inject daily (and which cost about two grand a month). She also took a bone scan, to determine the age of the breaks (compression fractures can happen to anyone, and very often painlessly). The bone scan revealed that the fractures were very old. But that made no difference to her assessment. As far as my bones are concerned, I’m pretty much made of glass.
Of course I was supposed to give up riding. Riding is a risky sport. Horses are not machines, and even the gentlest and most well-trained creature will do crazy out-of-the-blue without-warning stuff. Even the stuff they do with warning can land you on your ass, your head, your neck, your back. Get a group of lifetime riders together, and they’ll talk about the pins in their hips, the breaks in their legs, the cracks in their ribs. They’ve been thrown, squashed, bitten, and kicked. Part of being crazy about horses is…well, being crazy.
I’m lucky. I haven’t – or, rather, hadn’t – had a real accident in decades. Actually, compared to this one, I’ve never had a serious accident at all. I fell off my last horse about seven or eight years ago when he shied from a dead standstill, having been suddenly terrified by something completely harmless and stationary (I think it was a fern). I landed uninjured. Before that, I guess it was the time I went over my horse’s head when we jumped a little cross-bar jump, and the time before that it was when my fat little Appy tripped and did a complete somersault (fortunately throwing me clear of her tumbling body). I fell off a lot when I was a teenager, too, and doing crazy-ass risky things. But in terms of horseback crack-ups, I’ve been lucky: very, very lucky. I’ve simply never had one: no pins, no breaks, no concussions. Lucky.
So maybe I had forgotten just how dangerous riding can be. I’d recently had to give up my beloved part-board horse of nearly ten years, when his owner moved, and had found a new place to ride. I’d only ridden there four times, on a good-tempered fellow who is part of a herd the barn’s owner rents out to part-boarders and day-riders. The trails are excellent – broad and sandy – and the horses seemed lovely. I thought I’d found a pretty good spot.
But last Thursday when I went up there to ride (with my friend Monika), we were both given horses we’d never ridden before. We also were told we had to ride in the group with the owner, ostensibly to be safe. The leader of the ride was a big strapping young man I’ll call Ahmed, who rides a gigantic Thoroughbred/warmblood cross named Commander. I’d been out with Ahmed once before, and had spent most of the ride at the canter, because Ahmed loves speed. I think he was a Bedouin in an earlier life – he and his horse are all go-go-go.
Now, to my embarrassment, I was actually happy when I saw that Ahmed was leading. Like a lot of riders, I love to canter. The horse I was riding – who was a stranger to me – had a lovely canter. Once we got started, I discovered he was responsive and responsible, and had a nice, easy-to-sit canter. I thought, what a nice animal. Whenever we slowed down to walk for a while, I told Monika how much I liked the horse: how obedient he was, how smooth his transitions were, and other horsie things. Then Ahmed would take off again and so would the rest of us, off through the forest at a good clip, like we were all invincible.
What was I thinking?
I can tell you that, easily. I was thinking how happy I was. I was thinking how wonderful it felt. I was thinking about how much I love to ride. I was thinking all these good things. And then, in an instant, I was on the ground, swearing and yelling and in pain, thinking this is really BAD.
It was bad, but it could have been so much worse. I didn’t know it yet, but I had a broken shoulder blade, as well as various crushed/bruised/torn rib-and-arm-and-shoulder tissues. Monika was beside me in seconds, and with her help I got to my feet. She made a sling out of my light jacket. She made sure I didn’t pass out when I stood up. And fortunately, I could walk. Other than the upper left quadrant of my body, everything worked. There were no cuts, and my helmet had protected my head. We walked a mile back to the barn, with Monika leading the horses, and the barn owner riding alongside giving me heck for my poor riding skills (my reins were too loose, she said), which had caused the accident. She also told me about how Ahmed had had a wreck the year before, when Commander had thrown him, and how he’d spent two weeks in the hospital and now was held together with pins. But I didn’t really care about her scolding or about Ahmed’s horse-accident story. Me and my blown-glass, low-density bones were (mostly) in one piece. I was alive. I wasn’t a quadriplegic. So yeah, I was grateful.
Grateful is what I’m still feeling, a few days post-accident. It’s Thanksgiving Sunday, and boy am I thankful. Since that horse gave me a lesson in humility (and safety), I’ve been astounded and humbled by the rising-up of helpers and friends and family. Starting with Monika, who walked me back to the barn, drove me to the hospital, carried my bags, pep-talked me when I was giving in to the pain, it’s been an ongoing shower of people and things to be grateful for. Then the nurse in triage, who was so understanding. My husband, who showed up and sat beside the stretcher while I lay there in a neck brace with my shoulder and arm and ribcage feeling worse by the second (shock wearing off, I guess). The doctors and nurses; the painkillers; the x-ray machine. The texts from my kids. All of that.
Then, when I got home, the level of help just plain-out exploded. My husband turned out to be a closet Florence Nightingale. My neighbours brought Thanksgiving dinner, dog-walks, soup, entertainment. One friend rode a bus for an hour to come walk my little dog. My sister-in-law showed up with flowers and to tell me that her mother thinks I’m crazy to be riding horses at my age (well, yeah, I am). A woman friend from childhood whom I see maybe once a year drove for miles to bring me a weird inflatable ice-water cooling jacket that fits over your shoulder (it also works on my boob, which feels half-ripped from my chest wall). Another friend from music circle brought a special cooling jacket that treats torn rotator cuffs. I’ve had phone calls, company, food, and advice; my little dog has been walked by multiple people he’s never met (all of whom he barks at ungraciously). I’ve had two full days of serious pain and limited mobility, but this morning – day three – I can say that yes, there’s a little improvement. It’s definitely not as bad as it was yesterday. I am going to get better. Hallelujah!
I’m missing Thanksgiving dinner at my in-laws, but that’s okay. I’m thankful enough. I am thankful to be alive. I am thankful that today, if I’m careful, I can use my left arm from the elbow down, and type. I am thankful to Joe, who just left with the dog for his walk. I am thankful to Monika, who took so much time on Thursday to make me safe and get me home. I am thankful to John, who is waiting on me hand and foot. I am thankful to Andrea and Roy for the contraptions. I am thankful to Terry for the company and the dog treats and dog walks; to Melanie for coming all that way on the TTC to take the dog to the lake and to bring soup and to sit with me and talk theatre. I am thankful to Jason and Alexis and their family for the dog walks, the company, and the shared roast beef dinner. I am thankful to Carmen and those flowers on the mantel. I’m thankful for my sons and sister and Mom. I am thankful for all the good wishes and all the offers of help. More than once I’ve felt myself choking up over all of the generosity of the people around me. Except I can’t actually cry because my ribs are too sore.
I’m even thankful that I was thrown from that horse, and not just because it was a reminder to be more careful. It has brought home to me that my life is full of wonders and joys and gifts that extend beyond a foolhardy gallop through the woods. And for that – and for all the gifts this Thanksgiving – I am very, very grateful.