March 6, 2012, began much like any other day for Kate Gillespie. She spent most of it at her job as barn manager for dressage riders Steffen and Shannon Peters at their Arroyo Del Mar in San Diego.
But then she added one more thing to her schedule. She hopped on a horse after her work was done and leaned down to put his noseband in the keeper. As she did, the horse reared, smashing her in the head and flipping over on top of her, crushing her.
Gillespie sustained a concussion and a serious back injury and needed to undergo surgery.
“The disc between the L4 and L5 [vertebrae] was destroyed, so they had to put in a cadaver bone and screw it all in,” she said. “I had my nice GPA helmet on, and it smashed in half pretty much.”
More than a year later, Gillespie was still in severe pain and realized she’d need another surgery.
“Everybody’s kind of been telling me that I needed to do another surgery for a while, but I’m pretty stubborn. I thought I could handle the pain, but it’s just gotten so bad that I just can’t,” she said. “I had a bunch of procedures done. I’ve had nine epidurals and a bunch of physical therapy.”
Unable to ride and with mounting medical bills, her dreams of getting back to the upper levels of eventing and representing her native country of South Africa were fading.
After seeing her longtime friend suffer, eventer Tamra Smith decided she had to do something. Gillespie had recently started working for Smith at her Next Level Eventing in Temecula, Calif., in May.
“She’s a workaholic,” said Smith. “She's up at 5 in the morning and doesn’t go to bed until we’re all long gone. It’s been an unbelievable, wonderful thing to have her as a part of our team. I don’t think anybody has ever realized the amount of pain she’s been in.”
Smith decided to start a fundraising campaign to help Gillespie with the cost of her next surgery. Gillespie had health insurance but had changed providers, and the day she got injured was the day the new coverage kicked in. Fortunately, her insurance covered some of the cost of her initial care after the injury, but Gillespie still faces significant bills.
For another surgery to help relieve her constant pain, she would still need to pay $15,000, so Smith got to work on a GoFundMe.com page and a silent auction. The silent auction included everything from lessons to massages to products and stallion breedings, donated by several upper level riders and West Coast equestrians.
“I wrote up an essay [about her] and literally five minutes after I posted it, we had $350,” Smith said. “The first person who donated $1,000 was a guy by the name of Mike Morris, who’s at our barn. It just brought tears to my eyes, I was so moved by it. I expected to get maybe $3,000 to $6,000, and I figured anything could help.”
In less than 48 hours, the Go Fund Me page had exceeded the $15,000 goal, and the silent auction had raised close to $7,000.
“I never had to pick up the phone and call anybody,” said Smith. “Many people that donated are friends and sponsors of mine, but some are people I don’t even know. The outpouring of generosity from everybody was just really incredible and very touching.”
Gillespie had no idea Smith set up the fundraiser, and when Smith told her the amount they’d raised, she was in shock.
“It’s unbelievable!” Gillespie said. “I thought it would be completely embarrassing. I told Tami it would be mortifying. So she didn’t ask me; she just did it. Nobody’s ever done something like that for me. I never, ever thought that anybody would donate money, let alone exceed the limit she put on there. A lot of those people don’t even know me.”
Gillespie is meeting with surgeons to decide the best option. She’s hoping to have the surgery by the end of the year and plans to be back in the saddle as soon as she’s able.
“I will ride again,” she said. “I don’t care what they say! That’s the only reason I’m going through all of this. I’m from South Africa. I could just go home and live on my mum’s couch if I didn’t want to continue my career and my riding. But it’s all there is. It’s the only thing that’s keeping me going.
“I turn 43 in four days,” she continued. “This is the best birthday present I’ve had ever. I don’t know how to thank all these people. It’s just restored my faith in humanity. I was having a really rough time for a while, and it’s given me my spark back.”