Back From The Brink: Head Injury Changes Young Rider's Path

Nov 3, 2021 - 3:00 PM

Ariel Piper gave no thought to something as routine as retrieving her horse Tango from her pasture. But one day in November 2015, Tango and her other horse got grumpy with each other at the gate, and when a nip was returned with a swift kick, Piper was caught in the crossfire and kicked in the back of the head.

Piper, then 15 years old, found herself on the ground and unable to move.

“My cousin found me when she came out a few minutes later to grab the horses,” said Piper, 21. “There was so much blood coming from my head and my ear; my cousin yelled to my mom, and my mom called 911.”

Once the first responders arrived to Trails End Farm in Newmanstown, Pennsylvania, it took them several minutes to find her.

“When my mom called 911, she told them I was lying in a pasture,” Piper explained. “They had never dealt with horses before, and it took them a minute to realize what a pasture was and where it would be.”

ArielPipermodel
A head injury sustained while bringing her horse in from the pasture triggered a cascade of health problems for amateur rider Ariel Piper of Lebanon, Pennsylvania, and led her to decide against training horses professionally. Today, she works in marketing and models, as seen here, for The Hunt Club, an equestrian clothing store in Pittsburgh. JD Photography Photos

They took her immediately to the hospital, where doctors diagnosed her with a severe concussion and gave her stitches to repair a slice on the back of her head and right ear. Due to the severity of her concussion, they recommended that she not ride for 3 to 6 months to give her brain time to heal.

“They told me that if I fell off and got another concussion, I would have to relearn how to walk and speak again,” she said.

Nonetheless, Piper, who has been riding horses all her life, couldn’t imagine staying out of the saddle that long. “I ignored their requests, which I regret doing to this day.”

She continued to ride her horses, and she showed two weeks after her accident. She also continued to play on her school’s traveling basketball team.

But a couple of months after her accident, Piper’s choices started to catch up with her.

“I started getting bad migraines. I had a lot of trouble focusing at school, and I would forget things,” she said.

Her neurologist diagnosed her with post-concussion syndrome, which is a set of symptoms that may continue for an extended period of time after a concussion. It affected her both and school and at the barn.

“I was only allowed to do one test in school per week, and I had to go home when I developed a migraine because the bright lights would make it worse, or I would feel nauseous,” Piper said. “I also became more fearful and frustrated with riding. I didn’t know what to do with that—I had been fearless before my accident.”

For a year after her accident, Piper was plagued with symptoms that doctors, frustratingly, could not diagnose.

“I kept going to different neurologists because I kept getting random fevers, migraines and body aches,” she said. “There was something wrong, but no one could figure out what it was. At one point, I started having heart palpitations, so it became too dangerous for me to ride. It was difficult for me to ask other people to ride my horses, but I had no choice.”

In November 2016, doctors finally diagnosed Piper with Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome and Lyme disease. POTS is a blood circulation disorder that affects how the blood travels in the body. Piper was relieved to have answers.

“The doctors think that part of the reason why I developed POTS is because I was born with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome,” a connective tissue disorder that mostly affects joints, skin and blood vessels, Piper said. “It never affected me much when I was younger, but most people with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome can develop POTS in the future due to a traumatic injury.”

Fueled with her new answers, Piper set out to start rebuilding her strength and return to the saddle. She did physical therapy for several months, and her riding instructor at Trails End, Alexis Clelan-Liskey, helped her develop better eating habits and create an exercise program to improve her fitness.

“My cardiologist was great, too; he gave me several at-home exercises to work on,” she said. “All of those things combined helped tremendously.”

Piper was able to return to limited riding, and she was able to show locally as she felt ready, but it wasn’t the same as before the accident.

“My love of horses and showing kept me going—I just love being with them,” she said. But she still struggled with fear as she returned to riding.

“Normal people get frustrated or angry with your new fear because they don’t understand it if they’ve never experienced an injury or fall,” she said. “They just begin to think you’re untrainable, and you’ll never learn to grasp the concept. That’s hard when someone is trying to teach you. Alexis has been great—I just needed to start from the beginning again and work my confidence back up.”

Since 2019, Piper has been able to showing as frequently as she likes, and she bought two horses as potential investments, 5-year-old Mystic River and 6-year-old Alejandra LLF, better known as “Ally,” a 6-year old Oldenburg mare. Both are U.S.-bred Oldenburgs from Last Laugh Farm in Grantville, Pennsylvania.

“Ally is my heart horse,” Piper said.  “Every time I go in the ring, she tries her heart out, and that just makes me push myself that much more.” Piper shows Ally in the 2’3” and 2’6” modified adult hunters, and Clelan-Liskey shows the mare in the green 3’ hunters, making the mare’s first appearance at the Pennsylvania National Horse Show in October.

ArielPipershow
Piper and Alejandra LLF compete in the 2’3″ and 2’6″ modified adult hunter divisions together, while trainer Alexis Clelan-Liskey competes the mare in the 3′ green hunter division.

Still, the accident permanently changed Piper’s plans for a career with horses.

“When I was younger, I wanted to be a trainer so badly,” she said. “But my trainer rides close to 15 horses a day, and she’s in the barn over 12 hours on some days. It was so hot this summer, too; I don’t think I can physically do that anymore. So I had to come up with a way to mash having a job and horses together.”

Clelan-Liskey suggested trying to create a business with Piper’s two loves: horses and photography. That’s how Piper came up with Dappled Equine Marketing, where she helps trainers market their sales horses through social media and photography.

In addition, Piper now models for The Hunt Club, an equestrian apparel store based in Pittsburgh. She started modeling for them during 2020’s Black Lives Matter protests.

“I thought it would be a good idea to bring more people of color into equestrian fashion because you never really see any [people of color] in equestrian magazines,” she said. “I model for The Hunt Club any time they release a new product or fashion, and my best friend, Julia D’Orazio of JD Photography from Lebanon, Pennsylvania, takes the pictures.”

Social media presence has become very important to Piper. “I do social media because I wanted to share my story and interact with people who are in the same boat as me,” Piper said. “Throughout the process, I felt like I had no POC to look up to at the top of the sport. I think that was one of the things that made the journey a bit harder—I felt like I had multiple things that were against me. But I’ve gotten messages from other people saying that my pushing through this accident made them feel like they could push through anything, too.”

One of the things Piper enjoys most about having her own business is the ability to create her own daily schedule. “Sometimes I spend eight hours editing photos at home, and sometimes I spend eight hours at the barn,” she said. “They’re a nice break from each other.”

Piper has learned to work with her POTS symptoms so they don’t bother her as much as they used to. She aims to ride her horses early in the day, when it’s cooler and quieter in the ring.

“I still struggle in bad weather, like extreme heat or cold will shorten my time at the barn,” she explained. “I become light-headed and dizzy. The migraines that I get now are not as bad, and I’m able to control them more.”

This winter, she hopes to attend several weeks of the 2022 World Equestrian Center—Ocala horse show circuit in Florida. “My one investment horse was there last winter, but I did not get to go,” she said. “Hopefully I can go this winter and show.”


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 kloushin@coth.com with their story. 

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