The Road To Recovery Begins With Reflection

Sep 20, 2010 - 12:08 PM
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.

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