My Time Out of the Saddle with a Broken Leg Changed the Way I See My Horses

by Geoffrey Hesslink /

Published on

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ast January, I had clear goals set for the upcoming year. As a fairly young, new professional, I wanted to build on my recent successes in the professional hunter division and international derbies. I’d also recently received a few jumper opportunities, so I was excited and hoping to jump bigger classes and bring up some young jumpers. I went pro as soon as I aged out, and horses are what I live and breathe and do every day. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. 

Then, halfway through the year, everything came to a halt. 

I was at the Hampton Classic, and it was an amazing show. I was third in the Welcome on Sunday and second in the derby, plus I’d won a few classes in other hunter divisions. It was Tuesday morning, first class in the Grand Prix ring. I walked the course, and since I had done so well on Sunday, I wanted to go for it. I left out some strides and did a few inside turns. I was doing so well, going super fast. I made this roll back turn by the in-gate with a lot of momentum, and the horse’s legs slipped out from underneath him. All four of his legs went to the left, and he fell on my leg and slid across it, basically twisting my entire leg around.

Of course, my initial reaction was concern for my horse. I was so worried that he was hurt and, because of the adrenaline, wasn’t feeling any pain (yet). Thankfully, he was fine…not even a scratch! But when I tried to stand up, my leg felt like mush. You know the scene in the Harry Potter movie, when the professor puts a spell on Harry’s arm and it looks like his bones turned to jello? That’s the only way I can describe it. I felt like all my bones were floating around in my skin. 

As I sat there on the wet grass waiting for the ambulance, my mind was racing with all the things I had to do in the next 24 hours. I was so concerned about my other horses and my owners and clients who were there to show, and here I was on the ground with my foot literally facing the wrong direction. 

That’s when reality started to sink in: my plans for the fall, indoors, the big shows…everything I’d been working for all year. My dreams were slipping away, and there was nothing I could do about it.

There was moment when I thought, is it possible that I really might not get better?

I think when things like this happen, it has a weird way of showing you, for better or for worse, who is really on your side and who your friends are. My initial feelings of shock gave way to an immense sense of gratitude for those around me. I was blessed to have the Keenan family connect me with the surgeon, Dr. David Helfet, who did my first surgery. My injury was so bad that it required a top surgeon to put everything back together. Without their support, I wouldn’t have been able to even begin the road to recovery.

After my first surgery, I was back in Florida and started doing physical therapy. At that point, I had gotten serious about eating healthy. I was going to the gym and doing my physical therapy religiously. Then, I had my first imaging session, a CAT scan, and it showed basically no growth. I’m young, I’m healthy, and I was really focused on doing everything in my power to get better, and then to get that kind of news, I felt like I was deficient in some way, like there must be something wrong with me. 

There was moment when I thought, is it possible that I really might not get better?

When you can’t do what you love to do and your body is not healing the way you want it to, it’s easy to get into a bad headspace. I was scared that people would forget about me. I worried that my business was going to suffer, that my clients would leave. I felt irrelevant.

So, I chose for a few weeks to look at it negatively, eat my feelings, and think “poor me, no indoors, no this, no that.” Then, I woke up and realized that, yes, this bad thing happened, but things happen for a reason. I had to make the choice to channel this experience into improving myself as a rider and as a person.

And I didn’t have to do it on my own.

My wonderful partner, Brendan Williams, stepped up and kept things going. He’s normally more behind the scenes at the barn, but he did everything for a few months: riding, training, managing. And even when I had a broken leg, I still had people who wanted me to be their trainer, and I think that in itself was pretty inspiring. Their trust lit a fire under me and motivated me to get better.

Geoffrey and his mentor, Andre Dignelli

Along with the Keenan family, I had my mentor, Andre Dignelli, calling me constantly to check in. Kent Farrington also reached out to help calm my nerves about getting back in the saddle. He basically said, “You can make this a big deal or you can not make it a big deal. It is what it is and it happened; you can make it dramatic and you can make it affect you, or you can make it not affect you.” Kent has been there himself, so he knows what he’s talking about. I’m so inspired by riders like Kent and my friend Cat Tyree, who have handled themselves through their accidents, recoveries, and comebacks. They stayed humble and returned from their injuries so strong, even better than they were before. Not only that, but they’ve turned around and supported other riders. Honestly, I hope to do the same, to come back and then give back. 

I also had something else to keep me moving forward: my horses. 

To be out that long, it made me remember why I wanted to do this job in the first place. I missed walking on a horse, going on a trail ride. Of course I missed showing, but really I missed my horses themselves. I wanted to be around them, to be in the barn. Before the accident, I was always rushing to get to the next thing; today, I just want to stay and hang out with my horses. I want to be a bit of a barn rat again like I was when I was a kid. 

Now that I’m finally back (and ready for WEF 2020!), my goals for this year look pretty much the same as they did last year. I still want to be competitive in the hunter ring, the derby ring, and the jumper ring…but my perspective has changed. This journey has opened my eyes to the bigger picture. In this sport, it’s easy to get wrapped up in the scores, rubs, rails, and results. We show week after week, horse after horse, leg up, go go go. I think it’s easy to get tied up and forget why we do this every day. But coming back and showing for the first time since the accident, I’m just happy to be here. If my horses are happy and I feel good, that’s a win in itself. 

Before the accident, I was always rushing to get to the next thing; today, I just want to stay and hang out with my horses. I want to be a bit of a barn rat again like I was when I was a kid. 

The blue ribbons will come and go, but your horses’ health and your health and the community of friends who surround you when you need them most, that’s what matters more than anything. 

Did 2019 go as planned? No. Will 2020? Who knows! But I have wonderful horses, owners, clients and friends, and I am starting the new year grateful for every one of them. 

All photos by Kind Media LLC. 

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Written by Geoffrey Hesslink

Following a highly successful junior career, Geoffrey Hesslink has claimed his ground in the professional ranks with multiple hunter derby titles to his name and is currently based in Wellington, Fla.