In 2015, I took my faithful Olympic partner, Madison Park, down to the cross-country warmup at Poplar Place Farm Horse Trials in Hamilton, Georgia. We went through the motions; “Parker” and I knew each other very well and it didn’t take much to get us on the same page. As it goes in all good partnerships, one always picks up the slack of the other. My start time was approaching, so I left the warmup and headed down to the start box about two minutes before I was to gallop out on course.
Then it happened.
My vision clouded and was replaced with a horrifying reel of images, as if someone had placed a screen in front of my eyes and refused to let me look away. The terrifying images flashed before me for a solid 10 seconds. In those terrifying moments, all I could see was disaster on repeat, in an endless loop.
This was my first introduction into the mental black hole into which I fell after losing a horse, Conahy’s Courage, on cross-country at Red Hills International just a few weeks prior. In those seconds of pure, terrible hell, I couldn’t move. I felt ill and faint. I wasn’t prepared. I just had to … endure it.
“Courage” was a bright, young star in my barn. Purchased and owned by the generous De Lavis family who graciously gave me the ride, Courage was meant to be my horse of a lifetime. He was in prep for the next championship cycle, having gone Advanced for a year and competing in the CIC3* at Red Hills as his first bigger run of the new season.
What happened on that cross-country course is something that will stay with me forever. Losing a horse is something no horseman or woman should ever have to experience, yet here we are labeling it as an inherent risk of our sport of choice. Is that all it is? It’s a question that would haunt me for the rest of my life — and one that would render me incapable of competing at Red Hills again for the foreseeable future.
Kyle and Conahy's Courage at Fair Hill International.
Of course, I returned with students each year, but it still pained me to attend. The year after the accident, I brought a group of students and was walking the cross-country track with them. We approached the section of the course where the accident had happened — a rotational fall that resulted in Courage breaking his leg — and I found myself incapable of speaking. I spent a moment in that grove of trees, reflecting, before forcing myself to move on with my job of coaching. Here, I let myself take the time to remember and mourn in that same place.
After that moment of terror that took over my mind at Poplar, I thought I’d be able to push through it. After all, this is what I do for a living. I train, I compete, I coach. Life has to go on, and this is my life — for better or worse. So I pushed on and returned to some sort of normalcy, shoving the black hole to the side. It wasn’t until later that I realized this was the wrong approach.
"It became very difficult for me to identify and stomach the purpose of all that we do with these horses."
The year of 2018 will forever go down in the books as one of the most trying for my family. Last year, we were competing at a show and our mare, Reddy Or Not, was a favorite to win. Her owner and breeder, Christy Edwards, was one of our biggest supporters. Although she had bred many horses, Reddy was the dream horse for her. And since her birth, Reddy has been worth every bit of those dreams. She is truly a special horse in every way. But everything changed in an instant. Christy offered to run an errand for me in town before her daughter, Aspen, rode. On the way back to the show, she was involved in a car accident that would claim her life.
Our family and team were devastated to have lost such a great friend and supporter of our sport. Larger than life was the best way to describe Christy. The next day, I thought I needed to push through the shock and grief of the loss and finish the weekend at the show. I quickly found that to be a mistake as I racked up penalties and eliminations.
During the next show, my father, Gary, passed away. My dad was my biggest fan. He was the person who kept us going, who encouraged me to follow this foolish profession. I’d call him on every drive home to talk about the horses. I still remember him proudly wearing my team silver medal around the barn after Team Canada surprised everyone at the 2010 FEI World Equestrian Games. He loved the horses and he loved the process, and we still aren’t the same without him.
And so we tried to continue, to press on as both Christy and my dad would have wanted us to. But more and more, I found myself questioning the point. It became very difficult for me to identify and stomach the purpose of all that we do with these horses. I was finally, after doing this sport for over 30 years, slamming on the brakes.
That constant stress took its toll. In December, I was diagnosed with diabetes. It was a tough diagnosis, as I pride myself on living a healthy and active lifestyle. But the agonizing stress was the catalyst. The denial of pain and grief was catching up to me.
This was a turning point for me. After all of the heartbreak and loss over the last few years, I know that my time has a limit. I’m not going to pretend to be a Bruce Davidson or a Mark Todd, still successfully competing at the upper levels well into my older years. I turned 50 this year, and all I could think was, “How much time do I have left to do this?”
Kyle and Reddy or Not at Red Hills International.
There is nothing like the feeling of pure athleticism that comes with competing a horse at the top level of this sport. I like to compare it to dating versus being married — at some point, the trust and relationship takes over and you truly become a partner. Running a Preliminary cross-country is a shot of adrenaline for anyone, but everything changes when you’re running a five-star. While I know I will always ride to some capacity, I know that feeling of being on a pure, extreme athlete out on a big, technical course, is a feeling that I won’t be able to replicate easily.
So I decided that it was time to stop squandering my opportunities. Last year was extremely tough, and it’s been difficult to get back to feeling like myself again. I’ve realized that time is short, and it’s important to make the most of it. That’s a cliché, I know. But it’s true. I’ve spent a lot of time clawing my way back from these devastating setbacks, but not actually embracing my life full speed ahead. That changes this year.
Horses, eventing, riding — these things have all been passions of mine for as long as I can remember. I want to make sure I respect the efforts I put in when I was younger by not wasting the opportunities I have now.
So with that in mind, my wife, Jen, and I began setting the schedule for 2019. With the Pan American Games in Lima, Peru, quickly approaching later this year, I knew I had to try and qualify. In Christy’s honor, I wanted to qualify Reddy or Not for the Pan Ams, but she needed to run a CCI3*-S to do so. I entered her and two other horses for Red Hills, to give myself more purpose and a mental challenge to return to this event that had previously devastated me.
With all of this, the Red Hills weekend loomed and I could feel the pressure and weight mounting. Not only was I carrying Courage’s memory, I was also now carrying Christy’s hopes and dreams for her and her husband, Ward’s, talented mare.
The night before cross-country, I took a moment to myself and walked down to the grove where I was last with Courage. It was nearing sunset, and no one else was around. We brought Courage home after the accident to bury him. I know it’s unconventional, but I wanted him to be close to me. I spent four years with that quirky little horse, arguing with him over who knew best and dreaming about courses with blue numbers.
Kyle and Reddy or Not at Red Hills International.
By myself, I spent time reflecting on the loss, on how it changed my perspective and my priorities forever. I thought about Christy and her family, who had come down to show their support for Reddy and I that weekend. I thought about my dad, and how much I wished I could look forward to calling him on my drive home from Tallahassee.
Everyone deals with loss differently. I feel very strongly about my horses. I know their personalities. I enjoy their presence. Of course, I want to win and be successful, but for me the driving force is the relationship. And because of this, I try to have a sense of responsibility for their well-being. In Courage’s case, I feel as if I failed him.
My version of success is leaving the start box on a horse that I know, and who knows me. I love knowing that one of my horses prefers a scratch on the neck to a pat during our ride, and that if you pat him his back will get tight. Another one puts in his best performance with verbal praise, not physical. Courage just wanted you to believe in him, to believe that he was as good as he thought he was.
The next day, I completed the cross-country in the CCI3*-S with Reddy, and despite myself I felt my eyes tearing up. Although I had to run off to get on my next horse, I felt a renewed sense of peace. Part of the reason why I went back to Red Hills this year was to make sure I was ready to move forward. What happened will never leave me, but after the tragedy that befell our family last year, I realized I was hiding from my reality instead of confronting it. Every moment truly matters and I never want to be the person who wastes opportunity. This would be a much better story if I’d gone out and won all my divisions that weekend, but I know myself well enough to know that wasn’t what I needed.
Four years ago, I tried to find words to write to Courage. “Of course I will keep riding and competing,” I decided. “But the way forward is blurry for the tears. My string is diminished, without him my dreams are doubtful, but most of all my heart is broken.” As we continue to move forward and make the most of this life we’ve chosen, I will always carry Courage with me — sometimes we all could use a little.
To dad, Christy, and Courage: I hope you are proud. And in your honor, I will keep moving forward, and I will relish every moment I have left. Upward, downward, but always onward.
Kyle Carter and Conahy's Courage pictured in feature image. All photos by Shannon Brinkman.