You couldn’t wipe the smile off 16-year-old Alexis Halbert’s face as she walked out of the ring with a fourth-place ribbon in the Opportunity Walk-Trot-Canter Hunter class at Tryon Summer 2. For Halbert, who sustained a severe spinal injury at the same North Carolina showgrounds less than a year ago, this wasn’t just a ribbon; it wasn’t just a show. It was her comeback.
On July 18, 2020, Halbert, then 15, fell with her mare, Charisma, while competing in the 1.10-meter children’s jumpers at Tryon International Equestrian Center. The accident killed Charisma and broke Halbert’s back in three places. Since then, she has made it her mission to ride again.
After the accident, Halbert was taken via helicopter to Greenville Memorial Hospital (South Carolina) where she had surgery to insert plates and screws into her T5, T7 and T8 vertebrae. She spent 10 days in the intensive care unit and had no feeling or movement in her legs.
“Two weeks after my accident, I started moving toes, and every day after that a new muscle came back,” Halbert said.
Once she was stable from her surgery, she was transported to the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, which specializes in treating and rehabilitating spinal-cord injuries. There, she began intense physical and occupational therapy. Halbert was determined to walk—and eventually ride again.
“On Aug. 17, that was the first time I walked by myself with a walker since I got hurt,” Halbert said. “I had been using some of the machines that walk for you, but that was the first time by myself.”
Halbert had a large swath of the equestrian community following her journey. Her high school held fundraisers throughout the several months Halbert was recovering.
“We mailed 700 bracelets to people who wanted to support me. They were sent overseas, in Canada. People were reaching out everywhere,” Halbert said. “My best friend Lydia [Hinkle] made T-shirts that had my spine on the back with the rods and screws for people to order. She was one of my really big support systems.”
Halbert was released from Shepherd Center after 78 days. She returned to her hometown of Melbourne, Florida, to continue her physical therapy. By that point, Halbert was itching to get back in the saddle.
“When I was in rehab, they were trying to get me to do hippotherapy, but because of COVID, I couldn’t leave the hospital,” Halbert said. “When I got home, I was begging my mom to let me ride again, but she always said no because I wasn’t in the physical place to ride anyway.”
On Halbert’s 16th birthday, December 27, 2020, she did what few people thought would be possible: She sat on a horse for the first time since her accident.
“I cried so hard. I never thought, even still now, that I would be able to get back on and do flatwork at all,” Halbert said. “Getting back on was a super special moment for me. It was very emotional since I was told I never would [ride] again.”
Halbert continued to ride with friends and several trainers in Florida. As she got more time in the saddle, she became determined to get back to TIEC to compete again.
“In May, I started riding again once or twice a week, and I really wanted to go to Tryon because it’s my favorite show, and I needed to get back,” Halbert said. “We got in contact with Amelia Nowicki in Tryon, and she had a pony for me to ride, so we came up for a week.”
Nowicki, the trainer at Hidden Valley Farm in Inman, South Carolina, found Halbert through her father Joe Nowicki.
“It’s kind of a weird story but maybe meant to be,” Amelia said. “My dad is one of the vice presidents at the Shepherd Spinal Center in Atlanta, and they met when Alexis went there to start recovery, and he mentioned his daughters ride and that I was a trainer in Tryon.”
From there, the Nowickis and the Halberts’ friendship grew. Amelia was excited when Halbert was healed enough to come ride with her in Tryon.
“Her mom had reached out to me a few weeks before they were planning to come up and asked if I had a horse that would be suitable for Alexis to take some lessons on while they were in town,” Amelia said. “We didn’t have any intentions on showing; it just came together.”
Amelia knew her 20-year-old large pony Bear would be perfect for giving Halbert strength and confidence.
“Bear was actually my first pony. I’ve had him for about 15 years now,” Amelia said. “He’s helped probably hundreds of people of all ages learn how to ride or get back into riding or recover from a bad fall. He’s the ultimate babysitter.”
Helping Halbert learn to ride again presented challenges, but Amelia was ready to tackle them: Halbert had some leg cramping and struggled with a reduced range of motion in her heels and overall body. Amelia used what she knew from her own prior injuries to help make Halbert comfortable in the saddle.
“We played around with stirrup lengths—both of the stirrups didn’t need to be even, as long as they felt even to her,” she said. “When I was in high school, I crushed my foot, and I went through rehabbing on my horses, so I had little bit of background knowledge with the lack of range of motion that Alexis experienced.”
Through several lessons, Halbert joked about showing Bear at Tryon. That joke turned into reality on June 26-27, in the Opportunity Walk-Trot-Canter division, almost a year after her accident.
“I think, in the back of her head, she was hoping she might get to show,” Amelia said. “I said let’s do it; I don’t see why not. One class on Saturday turned into the whole division on Saturday and the whole division again on Sunday.”
Halbert wants to keep riding and eventually make it back to the show ring regularly. She’s decided, when her body is fully healed, she will begin her career in the hunter and equitation rings rather than the jumpers. She continues to have a positive outlook on her accident and how her life will change and grow from here.
“Showing in Tryon was so special to me because I made the decision to walk out of the ring instead of leaving the ring in a helicopter,” Halbert said.
July 21, 2021: This article has been corrected to reflect that Joe Nowicki is a vice president at the Shepherd Center.