I took my first riding lesson when I was 6 years old, so at this point in my late 20s, I’ve basically been riding my entire life. Short of the time I broke my collarbone and the six weeks I spent abroad during college, I have never spent any significant period of time out of the saddle. Riding is and always has been the constant that keeps me grounded and sane, a safe haven that hovers at the center of my life regardless of the chaos around me elsewhere.
So when my doctor uttered the term “soft tissue damage” three weeks ago, I panicked. I don’t know much about human physiology, but I know plenty about equine physiology, and I know soft tissue injuries are especially precarious and warrant extensive periods of stall rest. For me as a human, stall rest would translate to significant time away from riding.
A few days prior to this news, I’d tried my hand at skiing for the first time. I took plenty of tumbles down the hill, with the only notable one being when I twisted my knee in an unnatural way, fell on top of it, and heard a loud pop. I thought perhaps I would miss a few days of riding and felt that it was probably overkill to even go to the doctor. I’m sure you can imagine my shock when my doctor started throwing around terms like “torn ACL,” “torn MCL” and “torn medial meniscus.”
I knew what a torn anterior cruciate ligament meant: surgery and lengthy rehab, likely spanning most of a year. It sounds dramatic, but I felt like I was watching my entire 2023 flash before my eyes. My horse will be 19 this year and is in peak shape, preparing for her fourth level dressage move up. She certainly cannot afford any significant time off if we want to continue to compete; I think it would be too difficult to bring her back to prime condition at her age.
So would our career together be over? Should I scrape together every penny in my bank account to put her in training to keep her fit? I weighed every option I could think of. I panicked accordingly.
Even if my horse were 10 years old and her age was not a limiting factor, the thought of not riding for as much as a year upset me. When you pour every part of your heart and soul (and paycheck) into something, it’s jarring to be faced with losing it. Of course, it wouldn’t be forever, but it was still disconcerting to picture months and months ahead of me with no riding. “Identity crisis” might be a tad dramatic, but honestly, it isn’t far off from how I was feeling.
I’m wildly type-A and a meticulous planner. I’ve had my 2023 show season, riding goals, ballpark milestones and timelines ironed out since mid-January. It felt like a cruel prank I had inadvertently played on myself looking back on these lists after my injury. I came to the realization that planning that far in advance is a double-edged sword. It set me up for disappointment when there were so many variables between now and my ultimate goal of the U.S. Dressage Finals in November. I made a mental note to reassess my planning methods going forward so as not to feel like everything was ruined if one thing fell out of place.
The two weeks I had to wait to get an MRI on my knee to confirm the damage dragged and sent me into a further tailspin. How does a planner like me function when faced with such a vast unknown? She doesn’t; she becomes an anxious mess and pictures all the worst-case scenarios. She berates herself for taking for granted her health and ability to ride. She questions who she is if not a rider.
But MRI day finally came last Tuesday, and by Friday, I received the report back: my MCL was effectively severed, but my ACL was only strained, not torn. Six weeks more of rest and rigorous physical therapy would put me on track to be back in the tack by mid-April, and no surgery would be necessary. It was truly the best-case scenario I could have hoped for. I could live with six more weeks of waiting. That was nothing compared to the nine to 12 months I had braced myself for. (No pun intended to the full leg brace I’ve been sporting for the past three weeks.)
Recounting my abject terror feels a little silly and melodramatic now that I am mostly out of the woods with a very manageable prognosis. But it really did rock me to consider my life without riding, and it really did open my eyes to the fact that at any time, something catastrophic could happen to my horse or to me that could bar us from continuing our journey together, whether temporarily or permanently.
I have always tried to remind myself how lucky I am to have a horse and to be able to ride regularly. I take painstaking care of my horse to ensure a long and happy career and life for her. I treasure my moments with her every day, in and out of the saddle, and know that they are finite. But what I wasn’t actively appreciating was my own ability to ride, physically speaking. In a sense, I’m grateful for my injury. (I’m only comfortable saying that now that I know I’ll be back to riding in a few months.) It was a rude wake-up call that my horse is not the only one who could have a career-ending injury. My eyes are wide open now, though. I’ll never again take my physical health for granted. I will diligently rest and attend physical therapy until I’m back in the tack in the spring, and I’ll practice gratitude every time I get the chance to ride.
Laura Adriaanse is an amateur equestrian and U.S. Dressage Federation bronze medalist based in Philadelphia. She started out in the hunters, rode for the University Of Mary Washington (Virginia) IHSA team, then switched to dressage after college. She trains with Ana DiGironimo out of DQ Performance Horses in Swedesboro, New Jersey, with her Hanoverian mare, Dixie Rose, with whom she hopes to make it to the FEI levels. She also owns an off-track Thoroughbred gelding named Chai, who lives in retired luxury at the Adriaanse family farm in Nottingham, Pennsylvania. Laura is a marketing and communications professional with aspirations of pursuing full-time equestrian media work. Outside work and the barn, she enjoys writing, livestreaming horse shows and spending time with her three cats.