Ben & Jane: Part II

My previous post on Ben & Jane detailed Jane’s accident in July  2010, when she suffered a traumatic brain injury after her thoroughbred-quarter horse cross, Ben, threw her during a riding session. Jane had never felt fully confident around Ben, whom she’d bought as a green three-year-old at her trainer’s urging. After the accident, Jane knew she would never ride again. She agonized over whether to keep Ben; ultimately her love for him trumped her fears. She knew she and Ben belonged together—the next step was to find a new home for him.

Jane started searching for a permanent barn for Ben, a place where they could establish a new kind of relationship. She browsed Purgason’s website for a directory of local stables and found a listing for Cooler Horsemanship at Fiore Farms.  She’d never heard of natural horsemanship before but liked the sound of it.

In April 2011 Jane visited Fiore Farms and met Kate and James Cooler. Jane quietly related the story of her accident, tears streaming down her face—tears shed for herself, for Ben, and for all the pain they’d both been through.  She watched James and Kate work with their horses and listened to them talk about the importance of communication, understanding, and mutual trust between horse and human.  “Right away, I knew I wanted to be at Fiore Farms,” she says.

Ben arrived at his new home in Summerfield in early May, with one more accident to garnish his reputation: during the trailer trip to Fiore Farms, he reared and cut a gash in his forehead. He stepped off the trailer slightly dazed, ready to start a new life, preferably one that was accident-free.

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In less than six months at Fiore Farms, Ben and Jane have traveled light years. James and Kate introduced Jane to ground play, in which she works with Ben on the ground rather than in the saddle—something she’d never experienced before. Although Jane still suffers from eyesight problems and bouts of dizziness, she has proven to be a quick and capable study: she lunges Ben with ease, backs him, disengages his hindquarters, and firmly corrects him when his attention wanders to nearby mares or the prospect of grass. Progress stick and string in hand, Jane exudes confidence and satisfaction.

Jane and Ben do freedom ground play in the round pen

“There’s so much I can do on the ground,” she says. “It’s me handling him and asking him to do things, not someone else. I know Ben better now, and I trust him more. I know that for every issue, there’s a solution, and it’s always pretty simple.””

Jane supplements her individual lessons by studying the Cooler Horsemanship Online Library, which offers a range of instructional videos. “”Having an agenda, with a hierarchy composed of levels and stages is really helpful. I love the library—I watch the videos all the time. In fact, I learned how to back Ben over a pole from watching one.” She and Ben have even become part of the library, starring in videos that highlight Cooler Horsemanship students.

Ben conquered the pedestal months ago and breezed through a recent desensitization session, in which James rubbed him with a plastic bag tied to a stick. Ben has progressed to a bareback pad; the next step is putting a western saddle on him.

James puts a bareback pad on Ben

Wait—a saddle? Wasn’t Jane certain she’d never ride again?

Back to July 2, 2011, the one-year anniversary of Jane’s accident: She spent the morning playing with Ben in the arena, and then she did something entirely unexpected. When a fellow boarder offered her a ride on her little quarter horse, Jane said yes. “She took me for a pony ride,” Jane laughs, recalling the hand-led ride around the ring. Being back on a horse made her a little anxious, but it also planted an idea in her head.  Maybe she would ride someday. Maybe she and Ben would be horse and rider again, but in a different, much more connected way.

Maybe.

James and Kate think it will happen.

For Jane, the prize lies elsewhere. “If I don’t get to ride, that’s fine. If I do, that’s fine too. I’m just so happy I found this place—it’s an answer to my dreams.”

Ben & Jane: Part I

July 2, 2011, marked a significant one-year anniversary for Jane, a horse lover who began riding in middle age, fulfilling a lifelong dream. On that date in 2010 she’d been thrown from her horse, Ben, and suffered a subarachnoid hemorrhage that landed her in the hospital for a week, including three days in the ICU. The traumatic brain injury affected her balance and vision; she went through extensive physical rehabilitation, but her dizziness and eyesight problems persisted. A physical therapist herself, Jane wondered if she’d ever recover enough to return to her job. One thing she was certain of: She would never ride again.

She’d bought Ben, a 10-year-old bay Appendix, in 2004 at the urging of her trainer. Ben’s calmness, intelligence, and good looks captivated Jane; despite his youth and her inexperience—she’d been taking riding lessons for just a year and a half—she took a risk on the handsome three-year-old. Jane brought Ben to his new barn and discovered he spooked easily in a strange environment. “It was not uneventful,” she dryly recalls of that initial riding period, in which she fell off more than once.

Three months after Jane bought Ben, the first of their two big accidents happened: Ben injured his left hind leg while in his paddock, resulting in bone chips and a strained ligament. He underwent surgery and spent a year on stall rest. “We spent the family fortune getting him well,” says Jane, who stopped taking riding lessons because she couldn’t afford them on top of vet bills. She visited Ben often, grooming him and tending to his leg.

Thanks to twelve months of healing and Jane’s tender care, Ben was ready for riding again—but he was more horse than she felt able to handle. Instead, her trainer worked with Ben under saddle while Jane rode her trainer’s 20-year-old Irish thoroughbred. After many months, Jane started riding Ben occasionally, using a western saddle for a greater sense of security. Ben, who was notoriously resistant to upward transitions, didn’t like being urged from a walk to a trot.

And that’s how it happened—the big accident—though Jane doesn’t recall anything after the moment Ben took off running. Her trainer, who witnessed the whole thing, called 911. The next few days became a blur in Jane’s memory, although she vividly remembers worrying about Ben. What should she do with him? Should she sell him? Would she ever feel safe around him again? Trying to figure out what to do felt more painful than her brain injury.

Jane’s trainer found a farm with inexpensive rates where Ben could live temporarily and hang out with horses—a novelty for him, since he’d never been turned out with other horses. Meanwhile, Jane slowly recuperated from her accident. The helmet she’d been wearing was totaled, and she shuddered to think what a close call she’d had. After six weeks of recovering at home, she returned to her job, although she still felt the effects of the accident.

Jane visited Ben at his pastoral paradise every week, sometimes bringing her husband or her teenage daughter. At first she was so nervous she couldn’t even put a halter on Ben; little by little, however, she reconnected with him, rekindling the love that had never gone away. The decision she’d been agonizing over became crystal clear: “We loved Ben and he loved us. The accident wasn’t his fault—it was probably more mine. I couldn’t give him up.”

My next blog post will tell how Jane found a permanent home for Ben and developed a new kind of bond with him.