“It is clear that you don’t want to hear this, but you need to consider never getting back on a horse again.”
The memory of this moment is clear as day. The room starts spinning, my face goes white, and I completely fall apart.
If only I had known then what I know now, that doctor’s appointment might have gone so differently — or never happened at all.
If I could go back and talk to my younger, more stubborn self, there is so much I would say. Maybe I could have saved her from herself.
You’re 13 years old and riding horses is your life. It’s a hot summer day and you’re cantering your pony around the arena. A smile beams across your face, but then it happens. The ground is coming up fast and you open your eyes to see your pony on top of you. You both get up, brush the dirt off, and limp to the mounting block to hop back on and ride for another hour.
Don’t get back on. It will be one of the biggest mistakes of your life.
You’re tough — falling doesn’t scare you. What’s a little sore knee, right? Well, you completely forgot about your head. It’s ingrained in your mind that old misconception, that if you fall off, you get back on no matter what. You live by the “be tough” mentality around horses.
You have a concussion. Please rest. Allow it to heal.
But you don’t rest, and the headaches begin.
You’re 14 years old and have discovered the excitement of the “A” circuit, and you move away from home to chase those circuit points. You prove yourself by consistently winning ribbons — competing becomes an addiction.
Then there is an accident. You smash your head again.
Stop! STOP getting back on when you hit your head. Give yourself a real break. A week isn’t enough time to heal. The world isn’t going to move on without you. What if you get hurt again?
And you do … you fall off a few months later. It wasn’t a bad fall but your brain still hasn’t healed from last time. You move back home. You go back to school, but the headaches are getting worse by the day. You hide all the pain from your parents. But deep down, you know you’re not okay.
It’s a hot summer day and your head is throbbing. But you keep going. Toughen up, right? You go into the ring and produce a clear round, but when you get off, you are dizzy — everything is spinning around you. Standing on one side of your horse, you put your stirrup up while trying to listen to your coach on the other side talking about the round. Her voice is getting farther and farther away … you almost collapse, but your best friend catches you.
WHAT ARE YOU DOING? I wish I could scream at you. Taking a break from riding is hard. I understand. You feel like you’re letting your horse down, you don’t know what to do with your time, you don’t want to miss out. You don’t want your friends to continue showing and move on without you. But this isn’t right. This isn’t okay. You’ll regret it.
You push yourself so hard that it finally catches up with you. You can’t get out of bed. You can barely walk, let alone get on a horse. You are now in so much pain it feels like the world is caving in. You delete your social media accounts because watching your friends ride and show causes too much pain. You stop going to school. Your parents find doctors and specialists for you to see but you keep ending up in the emergency department. Your parents try so hard to make things better, but you hid everything for too long.
After many horrible treatments, medications, and side effects, you tell yourself and everyone around you that you’re better!
The headaches are less severe but they aren’t completely gone. You begin riding and jumping more.
Listen to the doctors.
You beat the odds and graduate high school — ignoring the doctors who suggest “drop out and try again later.” You convince everyone you are okay and move away to University. You start training heavily again.
You’ll suffer the consequences.
Four months later the headaches cause scorching pain. Your vision completely disappears. You live alone and are so scared.
You move back home but can't get riding off your mind. You stream grands prix constantly because that’s the dream, and you can’t imagine doing anything else. When you were competing on the A circuit, your seasons are planned — your years are planned. Your coaches believed in you and you were determined, but now you feel so behind.
There is no better feeling in the world than jumping a horse over a fence. You know that most take it for granted. Every time you canter a horse, you light up. That feeling. There’s nothing like it.
You feel down and are convinced that a few minutes of saddle time — just at the walk — will fix it. It’s the summer so your horse will probably be lazy and you have a helmet on — you always do. You get on your horse and your boyfriend pulls away and says he’s going to be back in 10 minutes. You tell him no worries, you’re just going to walk.
You’re too trusting around horses. Don’t forget about your safety. Don’t forget about the risks.
What were you thinking?
You lay in the hospital telling your family it’s fine — it’s not your horse’s fault. Inside you’re terrified. What if the headaches get worse? What if I don’t get better? What if I never get better?
Three years have passed. You’re graduating University. You learn to control your triggers and get your life back. No more hiding the pain behind a smile. Eventually the headaches start to fade away.
I’m proud of you. But I’m disappointed, too. You suffered so much.
You’re a different person now, but you still love horses. It’s time for you to get back in the ring — and the doctors clear you. You convince yourself that everything is going to be great. You can already see yourself in the grand prix ring. But when you try to get back in the saddle, the pain returns. You spend a day over a bucket because you are so dizzy after schooling horses. It is horrible.
Enough is enough...
Pain had become my new norm. I didn’t know what life was like without it. Since I’ve felt relief, I’ve been so afraid of going back. So when it did come back, I knew it was time to stop. I had to stop taking my life for granted.
I’m older now and I have other dreams, like having a family. I also want to help riders like me realize that we are not as invincible as we act. I want to help coaches understand that a small hit to the head can have severe consequences.
I still love horses and I don’t blame them for my head injuries. I don’t blame anyone, but I wish I knew how bad an invisible injury could be. I don’t know how different things would be, but maybe I’d still be in the ring.
Photography by Sophie Harris/SEH Photography for NoelleFloyd.com.