Liz Barrett, DVM, MS, DACVS, let out a whoop of excitement as she galloped her horse, Hurrican, through the timers in the low adult amateur jumper speed class at the World Equestrian Center in Wilmington, Ohio, in late February. Her barn mates on the sidelines sent up matching shouts. Why was everyone so excited about an adult jumper round? It was Barrett’s first time back showing after a freak riding accident sidelined her for six months, and the trip she’d just laid down took the win in the class and eventually helped her claim the division championship.
“I literally went in the ring and thought, ‘I want a comeback story; I want a win,’ ” Barrett said with a laugh.
A veterinarian at Hagyard Equine Medical Institute in Lexington, Kentucky, Barrett had been warming up for a high adult jumper class at the Kentucky Horse Park in August of 2019 when a near collision with another competitor put her in the dirt.
“We had just started jumping, and I was cantering a small fence, and someone circled in front of their warm-up fence, which was the backside of the fence I was jumping,” Barrett said. “They turned into where I was landing, and my horse spun away on the landing stride, and I fell off and heard my knee pop.”
Barrett tried to walk out of the ring, but she could tell something was seriously wrong with her knee. She withdrew from the rest of her classes that weekend, but Monday rolled around, and her knee was no better.
“It was really swollen and unstable, and I was walking around and working with it all wrapped up in vet wrap,” Barrett said. “Surprisingly, a person’s knee is very similar to a horse’s stifle, so a few days after the fall I had an MRI performed, and it was pretty obvious I had partially torn the ACL and MCL.”
Barrett’s doctor told her she was looking at a long, hard treatment road—surgery to repair the ligament, followed by four weeks on crutches in a large brace, four more weeks in a smaller brace, and absolutely no riding for three months.
As a veterinarian, Barrett specializes in sport horse medicine and surgery, so she had some frame of reference for the seriousness of the injury.
“A horse would not come back from this kind of an injury, so I had no experience in repairing something like this,” Barrett said. “In dogs they do repair this quite often, so I felt comfortable talking about it and understanding what’s going on, but I also had never had surgery myself before for anything, so I was actually quite nervous about it.”
Barrett scheduled the surgery for late September, about a month after her fall, and while the procedure went to plan, the recovery process was even more difficult than she’d predicted.
“I started going to physio appointments almost immediately after surgery, and they were incredibly painful,” Barrett said. “A necessary evil obviously, but certainly in no way pleasant.
“After going through that process myself I actually signed up for an online equine rehab course, because I think we’re unfair to horses in that rehab process,” Barrett said. “A lot of times people think they can just inject a joint, and horses’ lameness will resolve, and we don’t put any effort into rehabbing these issues. Seeing all the different options they had for me made me realize there is so much more we could be doing for our horse patients.”
The forced hiatus from riding and showing came at a particularly disappointing time for Barrett. She’d competed as a junior on Prince Edward Island, where she grew up, but then she took nearly a decade off from showing while she went to vet school, first at the Atlantic Veterinary College on PEI followed by an internship at Hagyard and a surgery residency at Auburn University in Alabama.
Barrett moved back to Lexington to begin working full time for Hagyard. After a few years of settling into her career, she was ready to begin the process of returning to the show ring, and in 2018 she happened across just the horse to get back in the game: Hurrican.
“He had been imported by Andrew Bourns to jump in the big FEI classes, but due to various issues, he needed a different job,” Barrett said. “He was hanging out in a field in Kentucky when I was starting to look for a horse to get back in the ring with. One day I was lamenting to Debbie White about the type of horse I needed, and she said, ‘I think I know of just the one for you.’ ”
Barrett fell in love almost instantly with “Harry.”
“I think I jumped him over one cross rail and was like, ‘OK, I’ll take him; I love him,’ ” Barrett said with laugh.
The 13-year-old Swedish Warmblood (Hip Hop—Carisma) was exactly Barrett’s type—standing at a stocky 15.2, he’s built a bit like an overgrown pony.
“My first horse as a kid was this Appaloosa-Thoroughbred cross that tried to kill me on a regular basis; I fell off him all the time,” Barrett said with a laugh. “Once he dragged me around by the stirrup; he flipped over off a little bridge into a pond; he was pretty bad. We ended up trading him for a pony, I think partially because I just wanted to be closer to the ground, and that pony ended up being fantastic. She’s who I really learned to jump on.”
Harry turned out to be perfectly suited to the task of getting a slightly nervous amateur back in the show ring after an extended break.
“He knows his job better than I know my job sometimes, and he lets me know,” Barrett said with a laugh. “You watch him go around on the flat, and he looks like a chubby pony hunter, but when he starts jumping he means business.”
Barrett and Harry competed in their first show together in December 2018.
“I was nervous from not showing in forever, and I thought I was going a million miles an hour; I really thought I was flying,” Barrett said. “I came out of the ring and thought I did amazing. I was clear. I’d remembered the course. And then I looked at my coach, and she was shaking her head. I had gone so slow I had 11 time faults.”
It didn’t take Barrett and Harry long to get up to speed, and within a couple months the pair had moved up to the high children’s/adult division. By June 2019 Barrett and Harry were competitive in tough company, taking second in the NAL/WIHS adult amateur classic in Tryon, North Carolina.
“I started setting some goals for the rest of the season and looking into next year; it was a bit of a running joke that I kept getting second but hadn’t managed to win a class yet,” Barrett said. “So I wanted to win a class, and I wanted to compete in the $25,000 high children’s/adult classic they have at HITS Ocala [Florida] every year.”
But Tryon was the last class Barrett contested in 2019—her fall happened at the next horse show.
“Obviously people can have way worse injuries, so it feels silly to say it, but it really was a pretty dark time,” Barrett said. “I’m used to being very independent in my job, and I couldn’t even drive myself anywhere for three weeks. Once I was able to drive I could go out to the barn to see Harry, but I couldn’t ride, and I had to even be careful brushing or hand grazing him, because if something happened and he spooked or did something totally normal for a horse to do I could reinjure the knee and have to start all over again.”
Barrett continued working through the physiotherapy program and set a new goal for her riding—get back in the saddle before the end of the year.
“I was just focused on the three-month mark, which was middle of December, and when we hit that the physio said, ‘I don’t know if you’re ready yet,’ and I just said OK and went ahead and did it anyway,” Barrett said. “I had my brace on, and I got on and walked and trotted around, and it was totally fine. Harry was amazing, and it just felt so great to be riding again.”
Slowly Barrett returned to riding regularly. After a few weeks of jumping in lessons, Barrett and her coach decided she was ready to get back in the show ring. They entered the low adult jumper division at the World Equestrian Center in February 2020.
“I went in the first class of the division, and it went OK, and my dad texted to ask how it felt to be back,” Barrett said. “And I said it felt good, and I joked with him saying I didn’t win today but don’t worry, I’ll win tomorrow.”
Barrett did win the next day, and the day after that she took the win in the classic—her first show back post-injury ended up marking her first two class wins with Harry, and her first division championship.
“It was amazing, that Dashboard Confessionals song ‘Vindicated’ was just blaring in my head the whole time,” Barrett said. “It felt like finally all my hard work was paying off, both from the rehab from the surgery and the work I’d been doing in lessons and at shows before. I always felt like I wasn’t living up to Harry, and now it felt like I was riding in a way that was worthy of that horse and good enough for that horse, and the results showed it.”
It looked like Barrett might be on track to contest that $25,000 classic at HITS Ocala after all, but it turned out 2020 was the wrong year to make plans for anything. Two weeks before the class, the COVID-19 pandemic hit in full force.
Now Barrett isn’t thinking much about showing and riding. Harry is enjoying some downtime, but as a veterinarian, Barrett is an essential worker. She’s adjusting to the changes required so that she can continue providing necessary veterinary care while the country engages in social distancing.
“I was never scared to go on a farm and interact with people, that’s my favorite part of the job, and now I think twice all the time,” Barrett said. “I think, ‘Would this person tell me if they had a fever or weren’t feeling well? Do I even need to worry about that?’ They’ve also rationed us on things like [personal protective equipment], because the same things we need to do sterile surgeries are the things human physicians need to protect themselves from coronavirus, and obviously it’s much more important the human physicians have those things right now.”
Barrett says for the most part clients have been understanding about changes in how veterinarians are operating in the midst of the pandemic.
“I think the people who get frustrated with me when I say I can’t come do something, it comes from a place of not understanding what’s going on, that we are trying to prevent human hospitals from running out of [protective] equipment for their physicians,” Barrett said. “So once I explain, ‘Hey, if I come castrate your horse right now I might not be able to do colic surgery the next week,’ people understand. We need to conserve our resources for emergency situations, so if it’s a routine procedure like a castration or joint injections and it can wait, we wait.
“I would just tell people to be understanding of the situation your veterinarian is in right now,” Barret continued. “In most places we’re deemed essential workers, but we’re limited to urgent or emergency cases. We want to be able to stay healthy to be able to provide care for your animals. We are all trying to be very conscious that our behavior doesn’t add to the stress on hospitals right now.”
Know an interesting amateur rider with a cool story? Email Lindsay at email@example.com.