Wellington, Fla.—Feb. 16
Geoffrey Hesslink had a very specific plan as he headed into the $10,000 1.40-meter jumper class at the 2019 Hampton Classic (New York). His week was already off to a great start with top ribbons in the local hunters and a third-placed finish in the $30,000 Open Jumper Challenge the previous Sunday. Wanting to capitalize on his success so far, he was really going for it with HH Casey Jones.
They were taking all the inside turns and leaving out down the lines, but when they went past the in-gate, Hesslink’s gelding lost his footing and fell on his side, sliding over Hesslinks’ leg, twisting it around backwards.
“Initially I didn’t really feel any pain, so I was fine,” he said. “When I tried to stand up and kind of fell back down, I realized something was wrong. When that happened I sort of was like, ‘Oh, I’m six out in the hunter ring, and I don’t think I’m going to make that.’ I was like, ‘OK, I’m going to need a minute and probably an ambulance.’ ”
Hesslink was rushed to Stony Brook University Hospital for an x-ray. Once they saw the extent of the damage—compound fractures to his tibia, fibula and ankle—he was transferred to Hospital For Special Surgery where David Helfet inserted a rod and eight screws.
“It was one of those things you never think is going to happen to you,” he said. “You hear about it, and you see people and it happened to them, and you’re like, ‘Oh, that kind of sucks. It doesn’t really affect you and your life, so you never really think about it affecting you.
“But it happened in the blink of an eye, and the main thing I remember was having this wave of emotion come over me, more than the pain, more than what was physically wrong with me, but the realization it was me, and I’m out, and I’m not going to go to the shows,” he continued. “Will I ride again? Will I walk again? Is there something wrong? All those things is the main thing that really messed me up for a little bit.”
Instead of going to indoors as planned, Hesslink found himself on bed rest while his partner Brendan Williams traveled with their clients, and he let his disappointment consume him a little.
“I think for me, sitting at home and watching all the indoors shows and the big shows on the live stream just brought me so down in a dark place for those few weeks just because I just wanted to be there so badly and be a part of it,” he admitted. “But I’m really happy that I’m back now. 2020 is my year.”
Hesslink stayed in New York for several months before returning home to Wellington, Florida. Initially, he thought he’d be back in the saddle in October, but his leg wasn’t healing the way it should because the amount of hardware was hindering it, so he had a second surgery to remove some of it. After that, he began healing more naturally and was able to begin physical therapy.
To help pull himself out of his disappointment and frustration, Hesslink reached out to others who’d gone through something similar.
“For me, for sure, I think things like this have a weird way of showing you who’s really there for you and who’s not,” he said. “And the group of people that supported and were there for me—you have no idea how much sending flowers or a card means when things like that happen. So the people that really stood by me and supported me through that I think were the biggest thing.
“I talked to a few people like Cat Tyree and Kent Farrington who’d obviously lived through those injuries,” he said. “I had a really good piece of advice from Kent Farrington. He basically told me, it is what it is. You can choose to make it a big deal, you can choose to make it not a big deal, and you can choose to let it affect you, or you can choose to not let it affect you. So this is either a bump in the road, and you’re going to come back stronger and better from it, like he did. So when that sort of sunk in I decided to change my tune a little bit and really focus on my recovery, eating healthy and doing everything in my power to make my leg come back better.”
He returned to the show ring in late December, and during the first half of the Winter Equestrian Festival, he was getting good ribbons, but not winning, and he admitted to feeling some frustration over the whole process.
“To be honest I was struggling a little bit mentally because I did not feel like my leg was affecting me physically all,” said Hesslink. “I didn’t think it was restricting my performance. I didn’t think it was affecting me mentally. I thought I was in a good place, and so far this circuit I was having frustrating results.”
Things turned around during World Champion Hunter Rider week, when he rode Luminosity, Sabrina Hellman’s 8-year-old Holsteiner (Larimar—Tarquina II) to champion in the 3’9″ green hunters to qualify for Saturday night’s $100,000 WCHR Peter Wetherill Palm Beach Hunter Spectacular. He also earned a spot with Snippet, Shadowfax Equestrian LLC’s 9-year-old Hanoverian (Van Helsing—Queen-Rubin) out of the 3’6″ performance hunter division.
“I’ve done hunters this week for as long as I can remember, but I’ve never qualified for the night class, so this is my first year and I have two in it, and I am so excited,” said Hesslink.
And for his first experience in the Spectacular, Hesslink decided to keep an open mind no matter the end result, and he more than exceeded his expectations, finishing eighth with Luminosity.
“This week has been not a dream come true, but I think I needed this week,” he said prior to the class. “It was such a positive [experience]; it was so rewarding for me. So I’m really heading into it, let’s just see what we can do, and what happens, happens. My horses have been great. It’s a lot of atmosphere and nothing that they’ve ever done before. It’s experience whether it’s bad or good. I think it’ll be fun either way.”
The Chronicle is on-site at the Winter Equestrian Festival covering the highlights from World Championship Hunter Rider week. Don’t forget to pick up a copy of the March 9 issue for more coverage.