Laura Linback’s 2016 season started out just the way she wanted. She won a slew of jumper classes during the HITS Ocala circuit in Florida, including the circuit title in the medium amateur- owner division and multiple grand prix ribbons.
After completing the jump-off for the $25,000 Junior/Amateur-Owner Jumper Classic, Linback’s mount, HH Dauphin, walked out of the ring, collapsed and died.
Linback suffered severe head trauma and spent the next 2 1⁄2 weeks in a coma. The following months, which should have been dedicated to training and competing, instead became a blur of surgeries, hospitals, ventilators, feeding tubes and rehab centers.
Before the accident Linback hoped to win a fourth Show Jumping Hall Of Fame annual award. By midyear her goal was to hold a fork.
From The Grand Prix To Leadline
Laura’s husband and partner in the show world, Troy, shifted his focus from keeping their Woodrun Farm in Mundelein, Ill., running perfectly to supporting Laura. Their son Owen, now 15, cut back on his motocross dedication to push his mom’s wheelchair and even- tually chauffeur her in the car.
Laura’s whole left side was limp after the accident, and she had to relearn to eat and swallow, and eventually move her leg, shoulder, then elbow, then wrist, then fingers. She spent hours working on brushing her teeth and using her phone. Her balance was gone, and she had to relearn to walk. Once she started progressing, her daily therapy included walking from her house down the hill to the barn to visit the horses.
One day Troy pulled Big Smile out of his stall and tacked her up. A month before her accident, Laura had won a grand prix on the gray. Now, she stood stock still as Laura slowly climbed aboard and then walked steadily as Troy led her around the ring.
“I called Dad and said, ‘Thank you for buying me this fantastic grand prix horse; now she’s my rehab horse,’ ” recalled Laura, 49. “She was perfect at home—so quiet. I had to squeeze her a lot to get my legs back.
“Physically I think I progressed a lot faster than mentally,” she continued. “I got tentative about everything. Not scared, just tentative.”
While Laura’s body relearned to post, canter and eventually find a distance, her memory improved sluggishly. Many things have returned, but the month before her accident is still a blur. And today, when the former English teacher reads, she struggles to remember what happened in the chapter she read the previous evening. She’s finding work- arounds for her memory, like relying on her son to keep track of phone numbers and jotting down notes in the margins and highlighting important passages in books she’s reading.
Despite the challenges, she’s focusing on the outpouring of support from her loved ones, spending quality time in the barn with the horses, and keeping her sense of humor.
“I’m a very goal-oriented person, and in occupational therapy my fingers needed a goal,” she said. “So I made my goal to ‘give the finger.’ I think my son and husband got sick of that. But they know as long as it’s with the left hand it’s from the heart.”
Putting It In Perspective
On exactly a year to the day after her accident, the grand prix rider who has ridden for the flag in Nations Cup competition and the 2004 FEI World Cup Finals (Italy) added a more modest, but no less hard-won, notation to her résumé when she accepted the adult amateur hunter, 46-55, series championship at HITS Ocala for her ride on Attention Please.
That’s a horse she used to show in the high amateur-owner jumpers and rode to a national Show Jumping Hall Of Fame award. But he had no problem slotting into his new role. At the start of circuit Laura began in the modified adult amateur hunter ring with the 11-year-old Hanoverian (Chico’s Boy— Selena), and eventually they graduated to the adult ring.
“I kept thinking of how my mom [Nancy Gorman] showed in the adults,” said Laura, who moved with her family from outside Chicago to Ocala full time during her recovery. “When
I moved up to the 3′ I said, ‘Holy cow, these jumps are really big! What were we thinking letting my mom jump in this division?’ It really puts it all in perspective.”
Troy recruited David Jennings to pilot “A.P.” in the 3’6″ performance hunter classes, and he was circuit champion in that division too.
“When Troy and I were trying to figure out how to proceed, we were talking about who could [help ride], and we came up with a short list with one name on it,” said Laura. “It was a special thing for all of us, and I’m so glad we had that connection.
“A.P. is just a doll,” she continued. “I had to be careful in the handy hunter that he didn’t think it was a jumper class, but he was great.”
Laura stepped back into the jumper ring, too, aboard Carmina, starting over .90-meter jumps and earning a ribbon in the medium children’s/adult amateur jumper classic a few weeks later.
“In many ways it feels more natural for me,” said Laura. “The hunters have to be so precise, and the jumpers I was flopping around a little bit, but overall it was OK. I remembered the course and the jump-off no problem. It got a little more challenging remembering the correct number of strides!”
Shows are different for Laura in another, unexpected way.
“I was never an extremely social person; it didn’t come naturally to me,” she said. “I wouldn’t hang out at horse shows and chat. I was there to ride or be at the barn. I never extended myself to many people for friendships. But so many people have reached out; it’s been wonderful. Everyone has been so supportive.”
While she may be back in the show ring, Laura is still very much recalibrating her expectations.
“It wasn’t that many years ago that I got to ride for the team, but it seems like a lifetime ago,” she said. “It’s a hard adjustment for me. It’s not that I’m brokenhearted that I’m not there anymore or I can’t do that. I’ve ridden in the grand prix classes and had more than one ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ horse. It’s a very possible scenario that I won’t get back to where I was, and I’ve accepted that. What I’m struggling with now is that I used to be very goal oriented, and now I don’t know what’s realistic to set as a goal.”
So for now Laura has turned her attention to what’s going on outside the ring: her relationships.
“It’s about being compassionate and aware and present,” she said. “That’s the same with the horses and with relationships with humans. That’s what’s important. I’m so grateful to my family—it’s been far more challenging for them than for me. For me it’s all about the human connections and how we bring joy or peace or happiness to those people and to be a good person to the people we’re with. The fact that we can be with the horses is such a blessing.
“All I can do is have the right attitude and accept what’s come my way,” she continued. “As long as I’m a mother and a wife and a daughter, that’s what matters.”
This is an article by Mollie Bailey, which appears in the April 17 issue of The Chronicle of the Horse. If you’d like to read the article in its entirety, you can subscribe and get online access to a digital version and then enjoy a year of The Chronicle of the Horse and our lifestyle publication, Untacked. Or you can purchase a single issue or subscribe on a mobile device through our app The Chronicle of the Horse LLC.
If you’re just following COTH online, you’re missing so much great unique content. Each print issue of the Chronicle is full of in-depth competition news, fascinating features, probing looks at issues within the sports of hunter/jumper, eventing and dressage, and stunning photography.