Sunday, Dec. 10, 2023

After Life-Changing Surgery, Finding New Ways To Horse Show Is Part Of Rehab



I woke up from the anesthesia, dizzy but aware of where I was. The nurse saw me stirring and brought me a ginger ale to soothe my stomach. I drank it slowly, observing all the things that were happening around me. I was in surgical recovery, on the opposite side of the room I started in two hours earlier. There were nurses moving around but, for the most part, it was quiet.

That is, until they tried to get the lady next to me to walk around. She must have just had a knee or hip replacement because she was moaning and whimpering in pain as two nurses tried to coax her out of bed to walk. It took me a second to remember my own horrible pain and when I started thinking about it, I realized I could not feel any of it.

There’s no way the pain is gone that fast, I thought.

I waved my nurse down. “Did the doctor do a nerve block?”

She ruffled through some paperwork and shook her head. “No, no nerve block. Just a local anesthetic.”

I frowned hard. Maybe she was reading the wrong patient sheet? “Are you sure?” I asked her incredulously. The anesthesiologist mentioned he might do a nerve block before I woke up. I just wanted to know when to be prepared for the burning pain to return. I needed to know—my sanity depended on it.

“Yes, you did not have a nerve block,” she said with a smile. “Feels that much better, huh?”

My eyes lit up, and I stared down at my hip. I couldn’t see under my hospital gown how many tiny incisions the doctor made but nothing hurt. I could tell someone had done something to my hip; it was throbbing slightly. But there was absolutely no pain. I also realized that the muscles surrounding my right knee felt more relaxed than usual. My jaw wasn’t braced and clenching hard. On that day in early June, the whole right side of my body had taken a breath and relaxed.

Boy, did that feel amazing!


When the nurse decided I was awake enough to be discharged, she helped me get dressed and into a wheelchair. I was shocked at how easy it was to get out of bed and into the wheelchair. I was able to put full weight on my right leg from that first step, and there was zero pain. There was also no pain when I sat down in the wheelchair, nor when I climbed into my boyfriend Lee’s Ford truck. The ride home was over an hour; I was able to bend my knee at 90 degrees the entire ride home. I have not been able to do that for at least a year and a half.

As soon as we got home, I was able to bear full weight on that right leg and walk into the house with the help of two crutches. Nothing hurt. I winced at nothing; I braced for nothing. I was so excited that it was hard to contain myself.

I wanted to jump for joy. (But I had a feeling that my doctor, my physical therapist and Lee and his mom would be mad if I did that) After all, I was back on stall rest with a prescription for minimal handwalking. I restrained myself and settled into the recliner.

Later that afternoon, Lee told me the doctor discovered in surgery the extreme severity of my hip labrum tear, which was the cause of my chronic pain. My doctor felt terrible—the injury did not look as bad as it was when he read the MRI pictures. He also was unsure how I was even walking, let alone trying to ride and work around horses. Mind over matter, I guess. I can be very stubborn and hard-headed when I want to be.

When my physical therapist saw the doctor’s surgery picture of my tear, his response was, “Good Lord, Nicole.” I was instructed to keep the crutches for a minimum of two weeks, no exceptions.

By Day 2 post-surgery, I was walking better than I have walked in years. I didn’t even care about the surgery pain; it didn’t not faze me at all. After experiencing the awful pain of the labrum tear for so long, my body was elated it was gone. I voluntarily got out of the recliner to make laps around the house several times a day. On Day 4, I was starting passive physical therapy exercises. When Day 5 rolled around, I ditched one of my crutches because it kept getting in my way.


Celebrating being pain-free and down to one crutch by five days post-op. Photos Courtesy Of Nicole Mandracchia

My stitches were removed on Day 12, and my doctor gave me strict instructions to stay away from horses until the muscle had time to heal. I must remain in my hip brace until July 19. Honestly, it slows me down so I’m OK with that.

I’m not allowed to ride horses again until at least August. I’m also not allowed to lead or hold any horses in case they spook and pull me. (I was hoping that would be my loophole, but my doctor thought of it first. His daughter is an eventer, and he knows firsthand how stubborn horse people can be!)

My doctor implored me to listen and allow everything to heal. He warned me that if I don’t listen, I will injure my hip labrum again. Because I don’t want that awful pain to ever return, I have listened and heeded his words. It is not worth it right now. I can honestly say that I have not led or ridden a horse since before my surgery, and I do not have any plans to until my doctor gives me the go-ahead.


Nevertheless, two weeks post-surgery, I found myself back at another horse show: Brownland Farm in Franklin, Tennessee. To follow the doctor’s orders, I had a different horse show job than normal for the first week: awards and presentations, aka the ribbon girl. This was the absolute perfect job for me. (Special thanks to Tim Hott for taking on a rehab!)

I could keep my fast-paced mind busy and focused while I healed and I had a golf cart to zip around in. My physical therapist told me to walk as much as possible, and he gave me a list of passive exercises to do to help strengthen my hip muscles. I had a blast doing this job all week—I made new friends while Lee managed and ran his in-gate. I even rubbed a few horses’ noses and got to watch a few of my favorite hunters show. It was just what I needed.


Riding the exercise bike for the first time post-op at a gym in Franklin, Tennessee.

By the end of the first week there, I was able to get to the gym and attempt a pedal bike for the first time since surgery. Everything functioned properly as I pedaled for 10 minutes with no resistance. The best part was—again—zero pain. This was incredible. After Lee and I left the gym, we returned to the camper, and I began my nightly ritual of icing, stretching, and using my Bemer device to improve blood flow in my right hip and knee.

Weeks two and three in Tennessee meant jump painting for me, which is currently another great task. I was able to practice standing and walking, but I had the option of sitting down when needed. And those of you that know me know that I sat down once (not a joke!). Because I’m a perfectionist, creating perfect lines on the jumper rails kept my obsessive tendencies happy. In that time frame, I also wrote several blogs and an article. When injured, one must be creative when it comes to making a living!


I spent my second two weeks at Brownland Farms in Tennessee painting rails and gates. These varnished poles were my favorite.

This surgery has lifted a weight off of my body. Chronic pain is a terrible thing. It will consume your brain, it will control your mood, and it will limit you in ways you never imagined. Pain will also make you do things you wouldn’t normally do or say things you wouldn’t normally say. I’ve had days where I was absolutely miserable because I was in so much pain, despite having good things happen that day. Your mind is a very powerful thing, and pain will completely alter your reality.

I know that I’ve said it 100 times, but I am so grateful to everyone who helped make this surgery a reality for me. Everyone’s support has meant the world to me and still continues to. You have all changed my life for the better! Thank you all for giving me my life back.

On July 18, I will be allowed out of my brace. I return to the doctor for another evaluation at the end of July, and we will see what he says next. In the meantime, I will continue doing my PT exercises every day and riding the bike so that I can get stronger. One day at a time, folks, one day at a time. Hopefully my next blog will include a bit of riding!

Nicole Mandracchia grew up riding in New Jersey and was a working student while in school. She graduated from Centenary University (New Jersey) in 2013. Nicole has groomed and barn managed for top show barns such as Top Brass Farm (New Jersey), North Run (Vermont), Findlay’s Ridge (New York) and Ashmeadow Farm (New Jersey). She has received five grooming awards at prestigious horse shows throughout the country, and she regularly follows the A-rated circuit up and down the East Coast, including Florida and all the major indoor finals. Her favorite part of her job is helping horses feel their best so they can do their jobs. Read more about her in “Groom Spotlight: Nicole Mandricchia Proves The Harder You Work, The Luckier You Get.”  Read all of Nicole’s COTH blogs.




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