By Heather R Erickson
Coming off of a 6 year recovery from neck and back surgery (yes, I fell off a horse; yes, it was my fault) my neurologist finally gave me the go ahead to start riding again in April 2015 and the go ahead to live life.
Neurologically I was totally intact, but my confidence was badly shaken. Just sitting on a horse wore me out emotionally with anxiety, yet I knew this is the real thing that makes me happy and who I am. After all, I chose to go to college because I wanted my horse to always be in my life. I am 51 yrs old and had a once in a lifetime horse partner for 26 years, who came to college and moved around the country with me. Ponyboy Tah passed at 31 yrs old in 2009 and is now buried on my property and I lucky to have had him in my life. A special memory is standing on his back picking mistletoe from the trees for Christmas in the sand hills of North Carolina. He was my best friend.
Finding a new horse/partner was going to be a challenge. I needed something safe and affordable. I had lower back surgery in 2009, due to a ruptured disc in my lower back just from standing up after planting a flower, and lower back degenerative changes (the contents of the disc landed on my left leg nerve root) which required urgent discectomy surgery. Then in 2010, I re-bulged the disc scar tissue and bulged 2 discs above that almost exactly one year later ( I hit a bump a riding lawn mower). I had yet to return to horseback riding.
It took 2 years to be able to be pain-free enough to go back to riding. In the beginning I could not even trot an entire arena. I had become physically de-conditioned and gained so much weight. In 2013, I found Aly’s Abram a Pony Clubber quarter horse, 15 yo 14.2 hh plain red pony, whose owner was selling him because she was going off to college. By this time I had gained 40 lbs. So I began riding.
In September of 2013 I was in a jumping clinic and then fell over the top of my horse’s shoulder landing on my back shortly after I got him. The result was a rupture disc and 2 bulging discs in my neck. Back to surgery we went and more recovery time. I was told I would be riding in 3 months. Well, bones took much longer to fuse.
By this time I gained more weight, totaling 60lbs from 2010 to 2015 due to inactivity. Healing seems to be the slowest thing when all you want to do is work on the farm and ride horses. Finally, in April 2015 I started riding again, along with dieting and taking lessons with dressage trainer Lindsay Riddell, who has been a longtime working student of Cindy Sydnor of Snow Camp, North Carolina.
The first ride by myself in our trails was almost overwhelming. I felt every nerve in my body shake and I kept talking to Abram try to keep calm, it was a big step for me. Eventually, I got over the fear, and just said to myself over and over that “practice makes perfect”. I wanted to be a lovely rider like my friend Christan Trainor (she rode Theodore O’Connor to the advanced level before Karen O’Connor took over the ride). She just looks like she was born on horse, totally in rhythm as if her and the horse are one, just beautiful to watch.
I started taking jumping /cross country lessons from Karen Mahaffey of Erin Lea Farm out of Sandford NC. The first lesson was in an open field and I had really only cantered a couple of times since returning to riding. We started with trot poles, and jumping trot fences and then we were cantering around and then jumping fences. At the end of the lesson Karen says to me ” I bet you didn’t expect that” and I was like “no, no, I did not.” What an accomplishment! I was like “I can do this! And maybe even compete.”
I wanted to go back to eventing. I had done training level in the late 80’s and wanted to get back to the thrill. My husband thought I was crazy after my injuries. So I dragged him to my first dressage test and I think he panicked more then me. But we did it and we placed! Onward and upward.
Karen got me to my first horse trial riding Maiden on my birthday weekend in September 2015. After dressage, we were in third place. I am thinking “we got this” but then I missed fence number 6 on cross country and was at the bottom of the leaderboard. It seemed to be a reoccurring theme with me. Even in training remembering a course was difficult, and often in training I would not follow a short course, I would just forget where I was going. I was so disappointed. But I completed my first horse trial since 2003 and I told myself I did it and I had only been riding since April, I tried not to be too hard on myself. But still, I felt I was there and I just gave it away.
Back to riding and practicing more, all the time Abram and I are getting fitter and both of us losing weight. We then went for The War Horse series horse trials at Carolina Horse Park in October at Carolina Horse Park. I was definitely nervous. These jumps looked bigger and the the galloping was longer. But I said to myself “I am not going to give this one away”, and walked the cross country course 4 times. I had it memorized. I thought to myself I’m on this small quarter horse, there’s no way we’ll place because of all the fancy warmbloods in Southern Pines but just finishing is an accomplishment in itself. We ended up 2nd overall! I was so proud of Abram and me.
Next, the War Horse Championships in November. It was raining again but I knew the course and we were trying our best. Aly’s Abram came in First Place in the maiden level. We were so surprised. I was smiling from ear to ear! Karen, my trainer, was telling me to stand during my victory gallop… I didn’t know that part, I had not been here before. Even walking back to the trailers people were saying “Go Ponies” because were clearly a petite pair.
Along the way, I was following the American Eventing Championships thinking that would a great goal for me to show I really have come back. I started thinking about how to plan for a Texas trip, use our vacation time there, the stress of travel on my horse etc. I didn’t realize it was in its final year in Texas and coming to Tryon International Equestrian Center in North Carolina in 2016. I was so excited I almost burst. No way! In my backyard! I’ve got to go! I messaged Karen immediately and told her my goal is to go to the AEC’s. She’s like “Sure, but we’ve got to get you going and up to beginner novice level to compete.” She says I can do this and I believe her. Next thing I know Karen’s barn Erin Lea Farms have also decided to compete, so a bunch of us will be going. And now we plan for 2016!