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.