So I’ve had a little set back in chronicling my return to riding. But at least now I can type with two hands to explain why I’ve been missing in action.
After more than 40 years of turning out horses the wrong way, it finally caught up with me. As my riding buddy Mary Ward said, “Did you miss Turnout 101?” Clearly I did. Who knew the horse is supposed to be facing you before you slip off his halter and let him go? Everyone, it seems, but me. And it gets even stupider. Sevie was a new horse, and I was turning him out in an unfamiliar paddock with a peanut gallery of fractious horses in nearby pastures taunting him with whinnies and snorts.
You would think I might have been more cautious, perhaps exercised what my trainer Gordon Reistrup suggests I employ more often: smart horse decisions. Nope, I turned this new fellow out as I’ve turned out every horse since I starting turning out horses in 1970. Then, I was working at C Bar U Ranch in Boulder, Colo., to pay off the board for my first horse, Homer T. He and his gang were a tired bunch of tattered, wither-bruised school and rental horses, so all they did was quietly shuffle away.
Over the years I’ve had hotter horses that could be a handful both in riding and turnout. And on their worst “Hi O Silver Away” days I made them face me before reaching up to get the halter. Not because I was taught that was the proper and safe way to turn out a horse, but because that was the only way to get Silver’s attention.
Sevie is about as close to Silver, “that fiery horse with the speed of light and cloud of dust” as I am to Margie Goldstein Engle. Yeah Sevie and Silver are both horses and capable of anything, just like Margie and I are both short, Jewish women capable of anything. Margie’s one of the winningest Grand Prix riders around, and I’m still hoping—once again—to get back into the Special Adults ring.
So that’s why I thought nothing of slipping off Sevie’s halter as I always do. This horse is so calm, it’s questionable if he even has a pulse. He was lent to me by my friend, David Yauch, a Culpeper, Va., horse trainer who’d taught my just off-the-track 3-year-old Thoroughbred mare to cross a tarp, play soccer with a Pilates ball and cross an ugly, trappy creek—in under two hours. So he had my attention when he told me that Sevie is the best trail horse ever. Dave kindly offered to lend me Sevie to help me regain confidence on the trail.
After a second head injury in two years, I questioned whether I wanted to even ride again. For 20 seconds. With the help of Diane Wade’s once-in-a-lifetime horse, Woody, aka The Doctor of Confidence, I returned to the show ring and survived. (I even won some ribbons. Hard not to on Woody.) Still, I was nervous on the trail, where the head injury occurred. That’s where Sevie comes into the picture.
My husband, Saint John, and I went to Dave’s farm in Culpeper where I first met this little, unassuming confidence builder. Sevie is 14 hands, like I’m 5’3.” We’d both have to stand on our tippy toes to make those marks. I rode him in the ring, while Dave put John, who’s been on a horse three times in his life, on Sevie’s sister. Dave’s exuberant generosity extended to teaching John enough fundamentals to enjoy a trail ride, then taking us all to a nearby park for a test-run.
Sevie is the Woody of trails, a complete schoolmaster. He can canter past a group of horses, stand still while the group canters past him, slide down banks, cross creeks, go from a gallop to a halt with a slight wiggle of the finger. I was elated. Even John had fun.
We happily took Sevie home, who, it should be noted, self-loaded onto my trailer without a blink. “Oh,” said Dave with a laugh, “he’s never seen a ramp before.”
The next day, John rode Sevie, and I rode Woody through our fields. A calm, gentle walk on one of those glorious warm fall days. Could life get better? I turned Sevie out into his pasture with no incident. He just stood there like a statue. The next day I took Sevie out by himself. He walked and trotted by all the scary things other horses have snorted about, with not even a sideways glance. Then I galloped him across the fields (where I knew there were no groundhog holes). Euphoria! This may not sound like much to you titanium-testicled eventers and foxhunters, but to me, a wussy show-ring rider, it was major. I haven’t flat-out galloped across a field in 25 years. A small wiggle in my fingers, and Sevie obediently came back to a walk.
I was pumped. So excited about being confident enough to gallop, I called my foxhunting friend, Louise Golian (one of the aforementioned titanium testicled) and arranged to go hilltopping in two days. My farm is a fixture on the Rockbridge Hunt, and for years I’ve been looking longingly as they gallop across my fields. I was finally going to participate.
I untacked Sevie, brushed him down, praised him again and again, then led him to his pasture. It was twilight, a smoky purple sky clung to the outlines of the Blue Ridge. I walked with Sevie about 10 feet into his pasture. He was his unflappable, un-Silver self. I stood by his left shoulder, reached up, took off his halter and turned to the left, with my back to him. Big Mistake.
Sevie, unbeknownst to me, was just as elated by our gallop and the new horses whinnying nearby. He spun, and kicked up his heels in what I’ve learned is called “an exuberance kick.” His hoof connected with my right arm hard. So hard I thought he smashed the glass on my Droid. Then with a nauseating clarity, I realized that was my bone shattering.
Unfortunately, I know how severed bones feel. In 1980, I fell under my horse as he landed a jump. I tried to lift my right leg and watched my foot flop over. The tibia and the fibula were cut straight through, which required a bolt and four months of a cast from my toe to my crotch. So I was sickeningly familiar with the feeling of disconnected bones. I braced my arm to my chest as I walked to the house, and Sevie galloped off into the beautiful, purple sunset.
The Saint drove me to the hospital and sure enough, a compound fracture to the ulna with major displacement. At least he didn’t snap both bones. The orthopedic surgeon casted it, hoping to realign the bones and forgo surgery. No such luck. A week later, the bones had slipped back into major displacement. So now I have a bionic ankle and a bionic arm. The surgeon installed a 4” plate with five huge screws that look like something he picked up at the sheet rock section at Lowes.
The good news is that while the surgery doesn’t diminish the healing time (six weeks), it does eliminate the cast. So I’ve been negotiating life with a splint on my right arm. I’ve spent the last five weeks marshaling my non-dominant left hand into primary duty. I can even write with it now. I’ve read that this is especially good exercise for the brain, which is important if say, you’ve hit your head a few times.
And now I’m typing with two hands, sans splint. The best news, however, is what happened on Dec. 1. When I’d gone to the surgeon to get the stitches out, he also x-rayed the arm to see how things were knitting together. Begrudgingly, he admitted I was healing faster than normal (thank you homeopathic remedies and bone broth). Not bad considering he’s comparing me to his other patients, many of whom are skateboarding kids.
I’m sure you know what my first question was after he showed me the barely visible break in the bone. “When can I ride again?” John just rolled his eyes.
The doctor looked at the x-ray again, then thought about it a few moments. “You’ve done so well, so far,” he said. “We wouldn’t want to jeopardize that. Can you wait until Dec. 1? And ride with the brace.”
I am now old enough to listen to doctor’s orders. In 1980, the doctor’s orders flew past me, and I rode with a cast on my leg. This time I waited. But Dec. 1 came, and it was another one of those glorious, warm late-fall days. I brought Woody to the barn, saddled him up and took him to the ring. He was, as he always is, perfect, and I was home.
Jody Jaffe is the author of “Horse of a Different Killer,” “Chestnut Mare, Beware,” and “In Colt Blood,” which have been featured in People Magazine and translated into German, Japanese and Czech. She is also the co-author of the novels, “Thief of Words,” and “Shenandoah Summer.” She is a journalist who was on a team at the Charlotte Observer that won the Pulitzer Prize. Her articles have been published in many major newspapers and magazines including The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Washingtonian and Practical Horseman. In addition, she teaches journalism at Hollins University. She lives on a farm in Lexington, Va., with her husband, John Muncie, and their eight horses. She attempts to ride hunters with her trainer, the ever-patient, Gordon Reistrup.