Three years ago this summer, Sarah Invicta Williams-Echols and Quincy Z were coming down to the last line in a grand prix at HIPICO Santa Fe (New Mexico). As they looked at a mostly-green vertical against the green field, Williams-Echols asked “QBear” to take a longer spot. Whether he misread the distance due to the optical illusion, spooked, or had a moment of green uncertainty, Williams-Echols will never know. But QBear came down on the fence, tumbled in a rotational fall and parted ways with Wiliams-Echols. She put an arm out to brace her fall, crushing the arm and falling directly on her head.
Friends and show officials went running across the field to Williams-Echols, who remained conscious throughout the ordeal. Williams-Echols remained sitting on her hands and knees and calmly told a client, who was a nurse practitioner, “I think you should get the paramedics out here. I think I broke my neck.”
In fact, Williams-Echols had a brain bleed, six fractures in her neck, cracked ribs, a broken hand and a concussion. She was rushed to a trauma center to begin a long, slow recovery process.
A busy professional hunter/jumper rider and trainer, Wiliams-Echols trains out of Invicta Farms at La Mesita Ranch in New Mexico’s Nambe Valley alongside her mother, Caroline Invicta Stevenson. Williams-Echols rides under her mother’s tutelage and coaches clients on a show circuit that includes Texas, Colorado, Arizona and Mississippi.
While most riders would think of the rehabilitation time as endless hours on the shelf, Williams-Echols feels like it was a whirlwind. Her accident happened July 31, and on Aug. 14, she was in a neck brace and back at HIPICO to watch another grand prix class. She was heavily reliant on then-boyfriend Lance Echols for everything from help dressing and putting on shoes to driving.
“Unbeknownst to me, my boyfriend had arranged to ask me to marry him at the grand prix,” she remembered. “There was this big, huge tent with a microphone, and he got down on one knee. I’m like, ‘Honey. You have to stand up. I can’t see you.’ ”
The next day, the couple closed on a house. A week later, Williams-Echols had surgery on her neck and would later have another to remove a bone chip that was pinching a nerve in her right arm. Three weeks after that, the couple had an engagement party and were married a little over a year after the crash.
As soon as she was cleared by doctors, Williams-Echols was back in the barn to work on her recovery, and QBear was by her side.
“He and I went on a lot of long trail rides together, rehabbing together,” she said. “I was back showing him one year later after the accident. We started in the [1.10-meter] jumpers and took our time.”
But throughout 2017, QBear had his own struggles. He had recurring colic episodes—some requiring hospitalization and others managed at the farm. Eventually, QBear’s veterinarians referred him to Colorado State University for surgery that would try to narrow the gap around his intestine, which had enabled it to flip out of place. Although he came through the surgery fine, he contracted salmonella poisoning and died a week later.
“We had been through so much together. It was really, really hard. I thought, ‘I’m never going to show again.’ You put in so much work and go through so much, and the rug just gets ripped out from under you. You think, why am I in this sport?’” she said.
Grief compounded with fear left Williams-Echols in a difficult head space.
“There was a lot to overcome, a lot of fear,” she said. “When you’re such a strong rider, being a professional, everybody looks to you to fix their horses make things better, and when they have a fall, you’re their rock. When they see their person get so injured, it changes the complete dynamics.
“I wanted to be there for my clients, and I wanted to support them, but I was kind of going through my own roller coaster at the time.”
Williams-Echols credits her emotional recovery on a great support system in understanding clients, her now-husband and caring friends and family. Physical and emotional recovery have been dominated by the “slow and steady wins the race” philosophy. She slowly worked her way back up to the bigger heights with QBear, and later, other horses.
She now wears an air vest in every class, hunters and jumpers. Williams-Echols’s doctor said he’s not sure whether or not the vest would have prevented her injuries in 2016, but Williams-Echols believes it could at least reduce impact from future falls. She still undergoes physical therapy and receives injections in her right arm and hand, which have not completely regained their former nerve function, making it challenging to grip the reins.
The accident also changed her outlook on riding with fear.
“First off, you have to be OK with being afraid. You have to be OK with the fact your life is not over, and just because you can’t do the same things or you can’t do them the same way, it’s not the end of the world,” she said. “I want to get the message out there that your Olympics are your Olympics, whether it’s’ the long stirrup hunters or the [adult amateur] hunters or the 1.40 or the 1.60s, whatever it is that works for you and the horse you have at that moment, and that’s what we need to be grateful.”
And the recovery process is not linear—there are some days that are worse than others. Fear and grief come in waves, and Williams-Echols believes that part of the process may be accepting that she’ll never be the same person she was before the accident.
“I think what happens with a lot of professionals is we get hurt and we’re like super heroes. We’re so strong, and we just kind of go through the motions; we make sure all the horses and clients are taken care of, and I think professionals need to be easier on themselves,” she said. “They need to know there are other pros out there that have gone through it or are going through it, and it doesn’t make them less of a rider or less of a professional because they’ve had an injury and they’re not the same rider they were before their injury.”
For Williams-Echols, the good thing about equestrian sport is there’s always another chance to improve, no matter what her new riding goal is. And while she will always miss QBear, her “horse of a lifetime,” she’s thankful for the lessons he left her—including the courage to take on big fences with new mounts.
“I think having this accident put a different spin on how I coach. It’s show jumping; you’re going to have falls and misfortunes and really awesome days also,” she said. “That’s what’s incredible—you always have another horse show, another class, and believe it or not, there’s usually another horse around the corner too.”
Do you know a horse or rider who returned to the competition ring after what should have been a life-threatening or career-ending injury or illness? Email Kimberly at firstname.lastname@example.org with their story.