One of my earliest memories is trying to keep up with my mother in a shopping mall. I trotted along, reaching for her outstretched hand as she walked down the promenade with the same rangy stride that I’ve walked so many courses. I was always catching up, not wanting to be left behind. Years of keeping up with my mother trained me to be a quick, big-strided walker myself, and I’ve become accustomed to viewing the world at that many feet per second.
I’m a show jumper. I like to go fast. I like to find the most efficient track possible. Up until this spring, I had the ability to do just that on my own two feet.
On an unremarkable day in April, I had an unremarkable fall and landed just the wrong way, snapping my ACL. How many times have I fallen off and been bruised, angry, but otherwise structurally sound and able to get right back on? I’ve lost count. This was the first time in my 25 years of riding that I was not physically able to walk, much less get back on the horse.
So, in some ways, I’ve been very lucky. And obviously yes, it could’ve been worse. But I also could have stuck the landing (I did land feet first, just the wrong side of my left foot). Or I could’ve not fallen off at all.
The fall happened on the first day of a show that my customers had been planning to compete in for weeks. So as they say, the show must go on—or in my case, limp on. The first thing that amazed me was the number of friends and fellow professionals who immediately offered to help. From riding my horses to walking courses with my students, I am humbled and indebted to my dear friends in the industry who stepped up and made those two weeks of showing bearable for me and a success for my clients.
When you get injured, everyone wants to tell you something. Having a knee brace on at a horse show is a lot like walking around with a 6-week-old puppy. Every human with eyes wants to come and have a look and tell you their life story. And I know these folks were well intentioned (mostly), but for some odd reason, being injured gives total strangers the confidence to say whatever unfiltered thought comes to mind. A few of my personal favorites:
“Well that sucks.” -Random guy at gas station.
“That’s what you get for doing the jumpers.” -Former client.
“At least it’s not your head.” -Total stranger at the in-gate.
“That looks like it really hurts.” -Person who could not comprehend that they were standing directly in my way on a narrow sidewalk, and I could not walk around them because uneven ground is my kryptonite.
“Heads up.” -Total moron in warm-up area of horse show cantering directly at me.
And many, many long rambling tales of orthopedic surgeries gone awry and rehab protocols that have absolutely nothing to do with me, that I patiently listened to, not because I cared or even wanted to be polite, but because I can’t walk anywhere fast, and it just seemed easier to stand still.
And yes, it hurt. A lot. But the beauty of an ACL is once it snaps, it’s snapped. It’s not unbearable.
Your knee is swollen and bends in all kinds of directions that it’s not supposed to, but I wasn’t hobbling around in complete agony so long as I avoided any pivoting or fast movements. What hurt the most was the abrupt and absolute end of my 2017 season with Fiona before it had properly begun. Gulfport had been a transformative six weeks for our partnership, and I was so hopeful that we would compete in our first grand prix together this year. The day before the big snap, I’d had the most wonderful flat session on Fi, and she felt so ready to show in the welcome stake that week. But alas, life with horses is nothing if not unpredictable.
Over the next couple days, a lot of people asked me how my knee was, but only one person, who had recently recovered from a major injury herself, asked me how I was. The knee sucks, but sitting on the sidelines when your best horse is in the best shape of her life sucks a lot more.
As with most aspects of riding, the mental component of this injury continues to be the most profound. And yes, things could be a lot worse. But things could be a lot better too, and to discount the paralyzing sadness that accompanies the death of dreams is unrealistic and unfair. My horse isn’t young. I might want to have children before I’m ancient. I don’t have that much time to do the things.
People tell me I’ve got plenty of time, but it doesn’t feel that way. My whole life I’ve been trying to catch up. I’ve never been the most talented, brightest shining star of any program. I’ve had to work and work and work to get to where I am, all the while watching the younger, wealthier, better-mounted generation pass me by. I don’t say these things to be bitter or ungrateful for the opportunities that I have had. But I want more, and I’m not ready to come to terms with the fact that maybe this is as good as I get.
Yes, I know I’ll be sound someday, and this too shall pass. But after you go through a painful surgery, and the doctor looks you in the eye and says six to nine months before you should get on a horse, it takes every ounce of self-control not to burst into tears on the spot.
My major achievement last week (aside from getting 13 horses and riders around the show ring) was making it across the parking lot and into my car before I began to sob. I don’t have that kind of time. I decided not to have a baby this year because I can’t afford to take that much time off.
What I’m really wrestling with is the dilemma that every woman in the industry faces at some point—we can’t have it all. Something has to give. Do I want to jump a grand prix with Fiona or do I want to have a kid? Because now that I’ve essentially had a “knee baby,” I really can’t rationalize another five-to-six-month stint of voluntary time off in the next several years.
Of course, the timing worked out in a way that the only date to get my knee operated on was the Friday before Upperville. I got to spend my most crippled two weeks post-op trying to navigate the two busiest shows of the season. Warm-up areas were yet again my nemesis. I drove my golf cart with reckless abandon past signs that futilely declared “Park Em Here Partners!” And I thanked the powers that be that the Grafton-Salem showgrounds are relatively flat and mud-free.
Was this my best life choice so far? Probably not, but the alternative was waiting another month to be operated on, and I just couldn’t stomach wasting any more time. Yet again, I was reminded that I am surrounded by some of the hardest working, most supportive clients and friends, and I am so grateful for them every day.
I’ve never been good at slowing down. But I can’t deny that this forced, and quite literal, slowing down has given me things.
For starters, I have a whole new respect and sympathy for a horse on stall rest. The first couple weeks after the injury while waiting to have surgery I felt the distinct need for a nibble net and some reserpine.
It’s given me the time to apply for my judge’s license. It’s given me pause to deal with the emotional impact of the situation—like it or not, I can’t run from it. I can’t busy myself riding, working, running myself to the point of exhaustion in order to avoid dealing with my feelings.
It’s given me a renewed joy for teaching lessons and engaging with my students on the ground. I have to be a better instructor because I can’t get on the horse and fix the problem myself. It’s given me clarity to know that I want to ride Fiona above all others and that it’s the right time to sell some horses.
And if I’m lucky, it’s given me patience.
Chronicle blogger and up-and-coming hunter/jumper trainer Paige Cade spent most of the 2015 FTI Winter Equestrian Festival working for Margie Engle’s Gladewinds Farm, and in 2015 made the decision to return to Virginia to start her own riding and training business, Country Fox Farm, Inc., in Middleburg. Paige would like to thank Antares, Purina, Dr. Sallie Hyman and Total Equine Veterinary Associates for their continued support.