The last thing Shari Wilcox remembered when she woke up in the hospital on Sept. 25, 2009, was leaving the showgrounds for dinner.
Wilcox’s weekend had been going well. Then a Ph.D. student at the University of Texas, Austin, Wilcox funded her studies by running a local eventing program at Spicewood Farms. She had two students competing at an event, one of whom had been first after dressage and held her lead with a clear cross-country.
The three of them were on the way to Olive Garden to celebrate when a driver presumed to be texting slammed into them at 65 miles per hour.
“I knew I had some physical injuries—few broken ribs, a lot of bumps and bruises, a big gash on my head,” Wilcox, 39, remembered. “But I knew something else was wrong when after a little while in the hospital I looked at the clock. I could see it, but I couldn’t read it. I couldn’t figure out what it said.”
The doctors diagnosed Wilcox with a traumatic brain injury. All felt confident she would make a full recovery, but it would take years. In the meantime, her riding and her studies would have to be suspended indefinitely.
“I pretty quickly decided that I wouldn’t ride again,” Wilcox said. “I didn’t teach again, either. I completely pulled back from the barn.”
She would remain out of the tack the next four years—the longest she’d gone without riding since starting at the age of 7.
Growing up in Montgomery County, Maryland, Wilcox learned to ride at the Potomac Horse Center. As a teenager, she earned her C-3 U.S. Pony Club rating with her first horse, Sooner.
“I was only 13 when we got him, so of course I loved that he was this 17-hand, beautiful black-and-white paint horse at a time when you really didn’t see many pintos eventing,” Wilcox said.
Wilcox rode for the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association team at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia, where she studied geography. After graduating in 2001, she took a job working for Defenders of Wildlife in Washington, District of Columbia. There she worked with various conservation groups to bring the Great Cats and Rare Canids Act before Congress, introducing her to the kind of conservation work that would later define her research.
According to Wilcox, the protection of big cats has to do with much more than keeping one species alive. As top predators, cats require healthy, vibrant ecosystems to thrive. So, if big cat populations are suffering, scientists know that the larger ecosystem is suffering, too. As a result, the steps they take to preserve the cats bolster the entire local environment.
And it doesn’t hurt that they’re cute.
“It’s definitely easier to get people to care about a spotted, furry jaguar cub than it is to get them worked up about native brush life,” Wilcox said with a laugh.
After three years in Washington, Wilcox returned to academia as a graduate student at the University of Texas, Austin. There weren’t many event barns in the area—the nearest events were a 2 ½-hour drive away—but one of them happened to be hiring.
“It was really perfect timing,” Wilcox said. “Here was this barn with really nice school horses, good facilities, and they happened to need a trainer.”
Wilcox built the lesson program to as many as 50 riders strong. Overall, she liked the balance it gave to her academic pursuits. But it wasn’t easy.
“I remember one show, I was in the middle of quals, which in a Ph.D. program is when a committee of professors draw up questions that you get a weekend to answer,” Wilcox explained. “I remember sitting on the floor in the tack room typing furiously between coaching dressage tests and walking the cross-country. It was a lot!”
The accident happened after Wilcox had earned her master’s degree and was in her third year of the doctorate program. With her dissertation left to write, she found herself in the unique position of not being able to read.
“I eventually did some research into CTE protocols for football players and just used that as a guideline,” Wilcox said. “I changed my diet, tried supplements, exercised, avoided alcohol. Still, it was five years before I recovered fully.”
For Wilcox, the biggest hurdles were always emotional. Her two students also sustained extensive injuries, and although they made complete recoveries, their involvement in the accident weighed heavily on Wilcox. Always a perfectionist, she also struggled against the new limits set by her body and her TBI.
After four years, she finally felt ready to resume her studies as a Ph.D. candidate. When she talked with a therapist who specialized in post-traumatic stress disorder about the prospect of returning, he suggested that she reconsider her decision about riding.
“He thought that riding might have multiple benefits—emotional, physical and psychological. I walked out of his office, got right in my car, and drove to the tack shop,” Wilcox explained with a laugh. “On the way, I called Florence Hite, the owner at the barn where I used to work, and asked if she had anything I could come ride.”
Hite happened to have a spare horse: a 15-hand, 5-year-old gelding named Pecos. He was meant to be a lesson horse, but what Wilcox described as a dangerous combination of “lazy and smart” made him ill-suited to the vocation. That suited Wilcox just fine. Getting back in the saddle, she wanted more of a kick ride. And back on track to get her doctorate, she couldn’t exactly knock him for his smarts, either.
The fact that he was a Paint just seemed like a bonus.
“I went out and rode him once, got super sore, and just started working on basic dressage,” Wilcox said. “I’ve always really liked dressage and the dressage phase of eventing. I just never had a horse that liked it as much as I did.
“And as much as I missed the eventing community, I had to think carefully about managing risk now,” she continued. “To me, that meant and continues to mean no jumping.”
The therapist’s advice proved true. The two pursuits combined to push Wilcox over the final hurdles in her recovery, and in her studies.
“I don’t think I could have completed my Ph.D. without riding,” Wilcox said. “My dissertation wound up being 420 pages, representative of years of research. The physical process of riding and the emotional process of connecting with the horse I think bolstered me throughout what’s really a very arduous process.”
Wilcox earned her doctorate of philosophy in geography in 2014. In 2016, her interdisciplinary research on the interactions between humans and wild cats earned her a position as the associate director of the Center for Culture, History, and Environment at the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.
As she got ready to move, Wilcox decided she couldn’t leave Pecos behind.
“I asked Florence if she would sell him to me, and she agreed,” Wilcox said. “We moved him all the way from Texas to Wisconsin, and I doubt he’ll ever forgive me for it!”
After braving their first snowy winter together, Wilcox and Pecos got to work. Wilcox heard that the National Dressage Pony Cup and Small Horse Championships would be held at the Lamplight Equestrian Center in Wayne, Illinois, just a few hours from Madison. Still a competitor at heart, Wilcox made that her target.
“Of course, because I grew up eventing, training for me mostly means conditioning,” Wilcox admitted. “We spent a lot of the spring and summer doing hills and cavaletti work. Out of the saddle, I focused on really getting my body back into shape, sticking with all my physical therapy, doing yoga and weightlifting.”
Wilcox’s professional schedule has been demanding: This year alone she’s traveled to Finland, Switzerland and Mexico to present her research and attend conferences with other scholars. She also makes frequent trips to the southwestern United States, where she works for the survival of Texas ocelots within the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge.
“Right now, the biggest questions we’re facing are around the proposed border wall and how that would affect ocelots and many other species who live in the refuge, which spans both sides of the border,” Wilcox said. “Erecting that kind of a barrier, even just the building process, would create enormous changes in the ecosystem.”
Despite challenges, Wilcox made time for Pecos, and he rewarded her with a solid performance at the Small Horse Championships, held July 20-22, where the pair claimed third in the adult amateur training level.
“This was his first time in a really big environment—around us, all the shows are very small,” Wilcox said. “The first day there, he tried to buck and bolt with me. But he settled down pretty quickly. He’s not a brave horse, and I was super pleased that he trusted me enough to stay on the aids and put in the test he did.”
Wilcox said her homework will be developing the connection for first level, which she plans to achieve with help from her instructor, Kathryn Barry. She hopes to return to Lamplight again next year, but if there’s one thing she’s learned from her journey so far, it’s to be thankful for the moments you get and not to hurry the ones you want.
That, and never to text while you drive.
“They hit us going 65 miles per hour,” she said. “That’ll make you think twice!”
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