On Father’s Day of 2017, Jerry Karp received the phone call that every equestrian parent dreads. “She fell, Jerry. It’s bad,” his wife Andrea said. A siren rang in the background as paramedics arrived on the scene. Jerry rushed to Beaumont Hospital in Farmington Hills, Michigan, to see his daughter Emily. Her face was swollen and scratched. Her hands were numb and tingling. She couldn’t feel her legs. They waited for a prognosis, terrified.
“In that situation you can’t help but think of someone like Christopher Reeve,” said Jerry. “I was just thinking that this could be my daughter now.”
Only 19 years old, Emily was lying motionless in a hospital bed. Neck in a brace, head throbbing. Everyone wondered if she’d ever walk, let alone ride, again.
When In Rome
Emily’s riding career began when she was only 3, and by 7 she was show jumping competitively.
“I remember taking her for lessons and other parents telling me I’d be leasing a pony soon,” Jerry said. “I just laughed at them! I told them they were crazy. But lo and behold, I was leasing a pony a month later!”
Jerry and Andrea say that Emily’s passion for the sport became evident quickly. Her piano lessons were promptly pushed off the schedule, replaced by trips to the barn, lessons and shows. She was hooked and had a natural ability that did not go unnoticed. Well before her teenage years, she was catch riding and bringing her trainer’s green ponies through successful show seasons.
“Emily kept begging us for a pony of her own,” said Andrea. “But she’d been riding her trainer’s nice ponies, and our $2,000 budget was laughable compared to what those ponies were going for.”
But after lots of persuading and a budget-friendly find, the Karps purchased Emily her first pony, When In Rome or “Romeo.” He was a Morgan pony rescue.
“He was WILD,” said Andrea. “We took him to his first show, and people were coming up to me telling me that a Morgan pony would never make it.”
But after a few years, Emily and Romeo became unstoppable. They ditched the hunter ring for jumpers, putting Romeo’s spirit to better use. In 2014 Emily and Romeo competed at the USEF Pony Jumper Championships (Kentucky). After graduating from high school, Emily and her family acquired an empty boarding stable and started Ringside Equestrian Center in New Hudson, Michigan. Emily continued riding as an amateur while she ran the boarding business, and Lauren Nassar came on as head trainer.
After 10 years of showing, Emily had earned a reputation for being brave and sticking in the saddle. Which she did to a fault on that quiet Sunday in June two years ago.
Emily’s barn had just acquired a new set of cavaletti, and she was excited to put them to use. She laid the poles down to mimic an exercise she’d done a million times over fences: three cavaletti spaced to act as two bounces.
Emily tacked up her new mare, Rosaline. She warmed up, rode confidently into the grid and ended in a somersault.
Rosaline had tried to take the last two poles in a single jump—an oxer instead of a bounce. She landed on top of the last cavaletti. The result was an unsteady landing, a fumbling trip and a rotational fall.
Andrea was standing by the arena fence. “I watched her faceplant and flip,” she said. “She didn’t come out of the tack until the horse was on top of her. I really thought she was dead.”
As the mare went down, Emily did too. Crushing her left shoulder first and then rolling to the right.
“I remember laying in the dirt and staring at the ceiling,” said Emily. “I couldn’t lift my head or move at all, and I remember thinking this could really be forever.”
Emily fractured her left shoulder and suffered severe nerve damage. The rotational fall caused her C5, C6 and C7 vertebrae to compress into her spinal cord.
Doctors declared it a miracle that the impact hadn’t severed her spinal cord.
After 36 hours, Emily began to regain some sensation in her legs. A few days later they let her go home in a wheelchair. But a long road of physical therapy lay ahead, as Emily would have to learn to walk again.
Her physical therapy involved a series of neck curls, stretching and soft tissue massage. The mobilization exercises helped ease her pain and allowed her spinal cord to heal. As it did, Emily graduated to a walker, and then a cane. Every step was a huge achievement that thrilled her, exhausted her, and made her wonder what else she could pull off.
“I was dying to get on a horse again,” she said. “I was having nightmares about the accident. I knew I’d be haunted by it until I got back on.”
And so, against her doctors’ wishes and despite her parents’ nerves, Emily wrapped herself in protective gear and had friends hoist her up for a pony ride.
She sat there and patted the dark bay neck of her once wild Morgan pony, Romeo. He’d taken her so far already. He was the only one she trusted to take these first steps now.
A month later, still walking with a cane, Emily declared herself a professional.
“I certainly didn’t imagine I’d be making the decision under these circumstances,” she said. “But I needed to be back at the barn, and teaching lessons made the most sense.”
Emily spent the next year committed to her students and her physical therapy. She got back on her horses, re-learned how to post, and then spent days recovering from the pain and soreness.
She sought help from saddle maker Voltaire.
“They helped customize a saddle for me that had extra padding and a special seat,” said Emily. “It helped me sit more comfortably and lean back a little to prevent straining my neck.”
Two years after the accident, Emily is able to ride daily and jump. She’s begun competing again at local shows and even won the baby green hunter championship with R.E. Regality, aka “Miss K,” at the May HHF Horse Show, held May 24-26 in Oxford, Michigan.
“I’m definitely more cautious than I used to be,” she said. “But mostly I’m just so grateful to be able to do what I love.”
Emily credits two things for her recovery.
The first, her mare.
“I truly believe that Rosaline tried her hardest to avoid landing on me,” said Emily. “Had we landed on my head and not my left shoulder, I’m not sure I’d be here today.”
The second, a silver chain necklace.
“My grandmother passed away not long before my accident,” said Emily. “And I’d been wearing her necklace ever since.”
The simple chain draped gently around Emily’s neck, sitting precisely over her C5, C6 and C7 vertebrae. It was the first thing she thought of when the doctors delivered the news that day.
Jerry recalls one doctor holding his thumb and pointer finger up to his eye, telling him, “Your daughter was this close to being paralyzed for the rest of her life.”
“She was so lucky,” said Jerry. “It was the greatest Father’s Day gift I could’ve ever received.”
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 email@example.com with their story.