For most of her life, Jessica Pabst’s universe was horse-oriented. After her first taste of horse sport at the age of 2, the Pennsylvania native jumped on and never looked back. She started in the short stirrup and pony divisions and then worked her way up through the levels, traveling back and forth to Florida to show.
With horses on her mind constantly, she went to Centenary University (New Jersey) to obtain a degree in business management, marketing and equine business management. Upon graduation in the spring of 2013, Pabst followed her passions into the world of veterinary medicine, where she started a career as a veterinary technician in Westchester, New York.
“I absolutely loved that job,” she said. “I had a very unique position there. I worked specifically for one of the vets as a tech, but she also had her own horses and showed. We would go in the morning; I would get to ride, and then we would go out into the field and see patients. I started to think about going down the vet school route, which was very exciting.”
One late September afternoon, just five months into her new job, Pabst’s life changed forever. “It was a normal day,” she remembered. “We were out in the field, saw a bunch of patients, and we were at our last appointment of the day around 5 o’clock. There was really no one left in the barn other than the owner of the horse, the vet that I worked for, and myself. We were doing a routine lameness exam on a stallion, a patient that we saw often. We were doing flexions, and I jogged him away, stopped, and went to turn around to jog back. And as I went to turn him, he reared up, spun around, and kicked me in the back of the head. I was immediately knocked out but never let go of the lead rope, and he ended up dragging me several feet.
“The first thing that went through my mind was, I’m fine,” she continued. “I can walk; I can talk; I can still move.”
But Pabst was not fine. After a trip to the hospital, doctors determined she had fractured her C2 vertebra, the part of the neck that attaches to the skull.
“They told me it would take about three months to recover,” she said. “I had to lay around and try not to stimulate my brain. I couldn’t drive or do anything. I moved back in with my parents so they could help take care of me. I could walk, but I felt so sick that I just laid in bed and slept most of the time.”
After the three months concluded and her neck brace was removed, Pabst’s health started to rapidly decline. Despite reassurance from her neurosurgeon, she sought out a second opinion. “It was probably six months after I had come out of the neck brace by that point, and I was in a terrible condition,” she said. “I had had enough. I went to Philadelphia and saw another neurosurgeon. It was discovered that I had a cerebral spinal fluid leak.”
After the diagnosis, extensive surgery and another year of physical therapy ensued. “I had zero balance,” she said. “I couldn’t walk in a straight line. I developed something called vestibular syndrome, so I just spent a lot of time working to retrain my brain.”
More than two years after the initial accident, Pabst could finally go back to work. But what would that job be?
“That was difficult,” she admitted. “I had to figure out what to do. I was a recent college grad; I didn’t really have any experience other than with horses. I didn’t think that working with horses was something I’d ever be able to go back to. I had no idea what I should do or even what I could do. I still suffered from terrible migraines, so I needed to find something that was flexible enough to allow for that. I’m the type of personality that doesn’t do well with failure. If I do a job, I want to get it done; that’s always been ingrained in me.”
Pabst realized her life might never involve horses again. “It was scary,” she said. “I was depressed, and I didn’t really want to be around all of my friends who would constantly talk about horses and about going to horse shows. If I wasn’t going to be able to do it, I didn’t want to be around that. That was the hardest part—even harder than the physical pain. All of my best friends were horse people, even the ones from high school. I didn’t have many friends outside of the horse world. I felt like I had lost a connection because I didn’t have anything to bring to the table and couldn’t relate to them anymore.”
Though she felt aimless in the pursuit of a career and mourned the loss of her previous life, Pabst acknowledged the lengths that her friends went to make sure she knew she was not alone.
“Two of my best friends from college bought a farm in Pennsylvania,” she said. “At that point, they had just started the business [Pembroke Pointe Show Stables], but they had a few sales horses, a few clients, and they asked me to stay at the farm for the winter and oversee it while they went to Florida. That was probably the best thing that could’ve ever happened to me. I was around a farm and horses but from a distance. It allowed me to feel like I was a part of the industry again without having to touch the horses; I was still nervous about being around them. When everyone came back up north, I started to work on building my confidence. I would go out to the barn and just watch from the sidelines, though I still wouldn’t groom, tack up or ride.”
Pabst lived with her friends for six more months before she shelved her horse dreams once more and moved to Baltimore to begin a sales job in the corporate world and to create a new life; one without horses.
Though she tried, she couldn’t stay away from them for long. “Fast forward again, about four years after the accident, I met my boyfriend; we moved back to Pennsylvania, about 20 minutes from the farm,” said Pabst, who is a sales operations supervisor for Centric Business Systems. “I would go out to see my friends on the weekends. Finally, in the fall of 2017 my friend Kelsey [Lawrence] got me back on a horse again.”
Enter Brixton. “I started riding again and hacking him on the weekends,” she said. “It was really supposed to just be a one-time thing, but Kelsey kept asking me to come back. Come spring 2018, Brixton had still not been sold, so Kelsey asked if I would be interested in showing him.”
With a lot of persuading from her friends, Pabst agreed to take a test drive with her trusty mount, first in the low adult jumpers. “The first time out I was really nervous,” she said with a laugh. “I didn’t want Kelsey to know that. We went in; we walked the course. The atmosphere was electric—the jumps felt so big, and the ring was huge. I got on, schooled, and was waiting at the in-gate for the person ahead of me to finish. There was a jump right in front of us, and the rider in the ring missed the distance; the horse got a rail stuck between its legs, and she fell right off. They were both fine, but it all hit me at once. I thought about everything that could happen if I fell off and realized that it just wasn’t an option.
“It was so simple; all they did was miss, and then both went tumbling through the air,” she continued. “It can so easily happen to anyone. I was so panicked. And Kelsey is so awesome. She just has no fear. She slapped Brixton on the butt and said, ‘OK, no worries, it’s time to go do it.’ ”
The pair ended their debut as division champions that weekend. “I felt invincible,” said Pabst. “It was just the best thing ever, to get back into it and do so well. The next week we showed in the highs, and he won the classic. All summer I got to show him until he was finally sold. It felt so amazing to get back in the ring, and it was a great comeback. I realized how much I missed it and how much of a passion it truly is for me.”
Pabst says she has only one regret about her return to the horse world. “I wish that I could go back and remind myself that accidents happen,” she said. “I was so hard on myself, and I let it get the best of me. I gave up on horses for far too long, and I wish I would’ve just accepted that and gotten back to them a bit earlier. They are my passion, and without them, I became a different person. I wish I had been braver and not resented that world so much.”
Though she doesn’t foresee an equine career in her future, Pabst is relieved to be able to enjoy the animals that she loves so fiercely once more. Having to re-learn to trust horses has given her a new appreciation for them and for the sport in its entirety. There are still days when she’s in excruciating pain. She takes several medications, endures chronic migraines and has annual check-ups with her neurologist. “When everything first happened, I WAS my injury,” she said. “I have so many other things in my life now, I don’t worry about it as much. I’ve really worked hard to move on from it and become my own person again, horses and all.”