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September 20, 2010

The Road To Recovery Begins With Reflection

A second bad fall has forced Jody Jaffe to take a hard look at her horsey passion.

I didn’t know it was Friday the 13th until it was Saturday the 14th, and by then it was too late. I'd already spent most of the day in the emergency room, asking the same two-word question over and over (My husband lost count somewhere past 50.):

"What happened?"

That's the thing with short-term memory loss. You can't remember the words you've just uttered, let alone why your head and body are strapped tight to a board, immobilizing every part of you. This is exceptionally uncomfortable, bordering on painful if, say, you've just hit the back of your head and you're a little tender there.

I know this not because I remember anything about Friday the 13th, but because the same thing happened to me 2½ years ago. Except that time, my short-term memory returned as they were lifting me into the ambulance after strapping me onto the board.

You’re Chronicle readers, so you know the answer to: What happened?

Every Ride, Every Time

Of course I fell from my horse and clunked my head. Hard. And yes, I was wearing an approved helmet. And yes, I'd thrown out the previous helmet after the last fall, replacing it with a new, better-fitting version. Because I’m a helmet Nazi, to the point of being obnoxious. Just ask my idiot friends I routinely chastise for going helmet-less. Their reasons are ridiculous:

"It's too hot." You know who you are my beautiful, blonde friend in North Carolina.

"Not when I'm on a horse I trust." As if trust can prevent a trip or a spook. Faulty logic from an otherwise bitingly smart lawyer.

"Only when I'm jumping big fences." Granted, this person could ride a nightmare, but accidents happen. That’s why they’re called accidents. Here’s Webster’s definition of the word: “An unfortunate event resulting especially from carelessness or ignorance."

I was wearing my helmet, but the truth is these two aforementioned falls fit a little too comfortably into Webster’s definition. After 40 years of riding, I can't really claim ignorance, but I can own up to carelessness.

Both times I was riding my 15-hand Paint mare who is usually so polite her name should be Miss Manners. She's kick-quiet, broke to death, and can stop on a dime and give change. But she can spook, especially when I only ride her five or six times a year. True to her Quarter Horse roots, she can also spin and blast off into a short burst of zoom. She did both when a deer bolted by on the trail this past Friday the 13th.

A Repeat Performance

My riding buddy tells me I rode the spin nicely. It was the blasting off that catapulted me backwards to the earth. This mare did the same thing 2½ years ago, with the same result: me slamming into the ground head and back first.

I was just plain stupid the first time. My son had spent the morning target practicing in a nearby field, so she was a little rattled. Plus, she was in season and hadn’t been ridden in three or four weeks. In my infinite wisdom, I thought that would be a good day to ride her bareback—for the first time.

"I don't know what I was thinking," I said later to my doctor. "That you were 20," she replied. She didn't tell me to stop riding, just to stop riding bareback.

At least I saddled her this time. But once again, she was in season and hadn’t been ridden for a month. Knowing that she has a spook in her if she's not worked, I should have longed her or ridden her in the ring before taking her on the trail; especially my trails, where deer and wild turkeys pop out with annoying regularity.

Thankfully I was riding with an experienced horsewoman, Genevieve Dodge. I used to take out beginners on my horses for trail rides. No more. More on that in another column.

Genevieve knew what to do. She made sure I was conscious, alert and not bleeding. Then she told me to wait there and she would bring help.

Here’s another problem with short-term memory loss. I forgot everything she said and started wandering home. My husband found me in the middle of the field. I trust that Genevieve and my husband are telling the truth, because I don’t remember any of this. But more alarming, I remember nothing of that entire day, even before the accident. That’s called retrograde amnesia, when you lose memory before the injury. It can be an hour, a day, a week, even years. Whatever I did to my head wiped out Friday the 13th as swiftly and easily as if my brain were an Etch A Sketch and someone shook me.

Apparently there was an ambulance ride to the hospital. Apparently my husband was anointed a saint because he patiently answered “What happened?” each time I asked. Finally a kindly nurse, who'd obviously seen the movie Memento, wrote down all the answers to my questions in big black letters and propped the list on my lap.

What I remember is waking up Saturday morning thinking I'd had a bad dream, then looking at the hospital bracelet on my right wrist. The Saint explained yet again what happened and even showed me my Memento list from the hospital, to which I replied exactly as I had (236 times) before: "Wow."

It's extremely troubling to lose an entire day; existing to everyone but myself. This retrograde amnesia was a new and disturbing result. The previous fall only caused anterograde amnesia: loss of memory after the injury. That time my son found me wandering up to the house. For the next 20 minutes, I kept asking a different question: Where’s my horse?

“It was the scariest and most annoying thing I’ve ever seen,” my son later told me.

But I remembered everything up to the fall, and later I even remembered flying off her back and hitting my head. This time, everything was gone. Waking up in the morning. Greeting Genevieve. Saddling up. Complimenting my neighbor on her new jumps. Whole conversations with people. Gone. And none of it has come back. The combination of both kinds of memory loss is called global amnesia. A terrifying term.

Then on August 20th, seven days after my most recent fall, The New York Times published an article about a new study that suggests Lou Gehrig didn’t really have Lou Gehrig’s disease; that his horrendous descent to death was actually a result of too many brain injuries. If that isn’t scary enough to make you reconsider riding, then you’ve either got testicles of steel or no sense.

So yes, for the first time in my 40 years of riding, I started considering a life without horses.

A Life Without Horses?

It’s been a gut-wrenching consideration. I’ve been horse crazy since even before I had memory. My mother told me she’d find me kissing pictures of horses as a toddler. I never willingly read a non-horse book until I was well into junior high school. I reread Black Beauty so many times the pages frayed. Other girls played house; I played horse. My dreams were always of Chincoteague; of swimming with the ponies and bringing home my own Misty to our row-house in Philadelphia.

When I was 10, I started saving a dime a week to buy a horse. By 17, I had $400. I spent it the first week of college on my first horse, Homer T. Horse. I lived in a dirt-floored basement for $25 a month, so I could pay Homer’s $125-a-month board.

Need more evidence that I’m certifiable when it comes to horse love? When I finally got to Chincoteague, I cried as I watched Misty’s cousins grazing in the distance. I was 47.

I’ve written four books about a woman who loves horses, I make mosaics of horses, I convinced my husband to cash out the equity on our house outside of Washington to buy 50 acres in Lexington, Va.—where we had no jobs—so I could finally realize my dream of living with my horses. I also convinced him to attach our barn to our house, so I can watch the horses from the living room of our Finally Farm.

A life without horses? If I don’t ride, then who am I?

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.

4 years 13 weeks ago
Hey Stuart: I hope you
Hey Stuart: I hope you remember me from the Minority Journalism Program at Columbia in 1972; my name is John Milton Wesley, and I was one of your students in MJP '72. You have been on my "bucket... Read More
6 years 7 weeks ago
Stuart Dim says hello
Hi, Jody: Hope you're doing well and getting better. It's been a long, long time since we've been in touch. Found out about this site from JoAnn Gose, with whom I've been communicating. I have fond... Read More


6 years 16 weeks ago

If you want to keep riding,

If you want to keep riding, you need to become as vigilant about other safety issues as you are about helmets. Like warming up a horse that hasn't been ridden in a month and has quite a spook in her before you go out on a trail.

I am 57, too. However, I did not get my first horse until I was 42. I am not particularly athletic -- in pretty good shape, just not very coordinated. I've worked hard to learn how to ride, so I've had to be more careful than people who've been riding most of their lives. I have come off in 15 years, but with no serious injuries, just a few bumps, bruises and one broken arm.

Even at that, I probably could have prevented every one of those falls. But, like you, I just didn't want to take the time to work through whatever bug my horse had up his/her butt that day. Next time, take the time. It's not a guarantee you won't get hurt, but it can minimize the opportunities.

6 years 16 weeks ago

Other Things Can Happen To Make You Fall

Other things can happen to make you have a bad fall and you probaby won't be wearing a helmet.  You could slip on ice or walking down a set of steps and fall and  hit your head.  Odds are you won't be wearing a helmet, but will you stay indoors all winter or go to Florida...nice if you can do that?  Will you never go down brick or concrete steps again fearing a fall (I know a man who fell walking down 3 steps out of house, fell and hit his head and almost don't say it can't happen). 

You have to plan to be as safe as possible and then weight the benefits against the risks to make your final decision.  Good luck.

6 years 16 weeks ago

I'm 23 and just graduated

I'm 23 and just graduated college, but I've already had my first "should I continue to ride" moment. I was in a car accident in which I was hit head-on by a drunk driver and as a result I suffered a head injury. After months of physical therapy I was told that riding would now always be a "higher risk" activity for me, since it would be easy for me to re-injure myself. The head injury left me with memory loss, dizziness, migraines and many other symptoms which I did not want to experience again. But not ride? Five months later I got back on the ex-racehorse I'd been riding before the accident and she carried me more quietly and more carefully than she ever had before. I did not jump on and go racing across fields or jumping fences, but riding and spending time with that mare played a huge role in my recovery.

I bought her a year to the day of the accident with the money left over from the settlement from that same car accident. I'm still a careful and cautious rider, and ALWAYS wear my helmet. I don't take unnecessary risks, but at the same time I don't allow myself to dwell on the prospect of what a hit to my head would mean. It's been two years since the accident, and every day I think I live a little more.

I think there's a certain amount of crazy which comes with being a horse lover. I, too, am paying more for my horse's board than my own. I've been out of college for four months now, and I NEVER planned on buying a horse right out of college, let alone while in college. But I'm making it work. Horses are good for us, and they keep us going. In my opinion, as long as we're cautious and remember that riding can be a dangerous sport, the inherent risks are well worth the rewards.

6 years 7 weeks ago

Stuart Dim says hello

Hi, Jody:

Hope you're doing well and getting better. It's been a long, long time since we've been in touch. Found out about this site from JoAnn Gose, with whom I've been communicating. I have fond memories of our great times at The O, especially when you were assigned to the rodeo and rode a bull. Remember the headline: Eye to Eye With a Bull and the Bull Blinked.

Continue healing and, if you get a chance, drop me an e-mail.

With warm regards,



4 years 13 weeks ago

Hey Stuart: I hope you

Hey Stuart: I hope you remember me from the Minority Journalism Program at Columbia in 1972; my name is John Milton Wesley, and I was one of your students in MJP '72. You have been on my "bucket list" for "Thank yous" for 40 years, and I finally catchup with you chasing wild horses. My friend Jean Albert Renaud is a horseman. First I come across this story after "googling" your name. Then, I read the story and the comments and. there you are! I also sent you a message on facebook. John