If you had told me I would spend the majority of 2020 sidelined and unable to ride, I would have said, “I want no part of that.” Last year was the most challenging year of my life, but it also was a transformative year, as I learned what it takes to stay strong through adversity and to put my physical and mental health above all.
In September, I fell from a horse and broke my hip, which required surgery. This injury has hit me harder than others because it involved so many of the muscles I use to ride. I’ve had to recognize that if I don’t take enough time to heal properly, it could impact my ability to sustain a long career as a professional rider. It’s a tough realization, but here are a few things I’ve learned about injury and how to come back as a strong and healthy rider.
1. You don’t have to get right back on the horse.
Growing up, trainers always emphasized the importance of getting back on after a fall, but it’s important to recognize in the moment when you might be too broken to do so safely. When I broke my back in February, I got right back on, and I paid the price for that in the days that followed.
It’s often hard to tell in the heat of the moment if your body can’t handle more impact, but don’t take your body’s signals for granted. If something doesn’t feel right, speak up and say that you don’t think getting back on will help the situation. Always take time to let the shock wear off so you can feel if something is hurting because sometimes the adrenaline will hide true injuries.
2. Listen to your doctor and to your body.
When I was younger and I got hurt, I’d be back on and training at full speed in no time. I didn’t want to miss a beat, and my younger body could handle it. I would be back on the horses, riding 10 in a day, months before my doctor would say it’s OK. But doctors give you a timeline for a reason. Now I know that rushing this process is only going to lead to more pain and discomfort down the road. The sport isn’t going anywhere. If you need to take more time to let your body heal, the same kinds of opportunities will be there when you’re back in top form. You may have to sacrifice some things, like year-end points or qualifying for your favorite shows, but your health is the most important thing. I’d much rather come back as my best self in six months than hurry back in two months and face the long-term consequences.
Every day will be different over the course of recovery, so you have to make a point to check in with your body and mind each day. Maybe it’s meditation or light yoga, or maybe it’s just taking a short walk if that’s something you can handle. Do what you can in order to feel in touch with your body and to recognize any pain points as signs to slow down or check in with your doctor.
Similar to working with horses, repetition and variability are key players in recovery and fitness. You want to keep practicing the doctor-recommended exercises to strengthen muscle memory and increase movement, but it’s also important to not exhaust your body by doing too much of the same thing.
3. Customize your recovery.
Our sport has parallels to other sports but lots of differences, too. It’s not the same as going to the gym or playing basketball or tennis. It requires muscles not used the same way in other sports, so it’s important to get them working properly again before getting back on the horse. I’ve done this by working with my physical therapist on exercises that are unique to riders. In my most recent therapy session, I even brought my Butet saddle so I could practice something as simple as swinging my leg up and over the horse. It’s hard to know whether your injury will cause pain when you ride, so enlist a physical therapist’s help in finding ways to simulate riding movements.
You also have to move at your own pace. When I first started, I was very limited because I couldn’t put full weight on my leg. I started with toe touches and gradually built up my exercise routine from there, incorporating my full range of motion. I had to remember the basics of walking, how to balance on one leg, and using muscle groups I hadn’t worked in months. I also had to make specific adjustments on some days because of my lupus; days when I have flare-ups can look very different, and I need to adapt to that also. Find the routine that works best for you; usually it involves pushing out of your comfort zone without creating unnecessary pain.
4. Don’t let the outside world discourage you.
Everyone knows it takes time to heal a broken bone. But what’s often forgotten is how your mental health can be impacted when you aren’t able to go about life as usual. I spent so many days holed up at home and scrolling through social media, watching all of my friends and colleagues riding and showing. That was not good for me. I’m the type who wants to be out there doing all of that with them, but I was stuck inside, barely able to walk.
Instead, remember to read a book, watch a movie, and when you do go online, find the social media that motivates you. For me, it’s Kent Farrington’s motivational posts. While I know I’m far from anything he can do (push-up handstands!), it’s encouraging to see someone who has also suffered an injury recently come back stronger than ever. If he can do it, so can I, albeit with a slightly less rigorous exercise routine for me.
5. Lean on your team for support.
My team’s success hinges on my success; if I’m not at my best my team can’t be either. They have been handling so much responsibility during my absence. While I know they want me back as soon as possible, they also know how important it is for me to fully heal so I can provide the best training to the horses and clients. When I’m not able to ride and train at my best, there will be a ripple effect down through my team, and the whole team will be weaker as a result.
While strong teams are good at checking in on one another, don’t hesitate to clearly identify what you need help with and continue to discuss your needs as the recovery process goes on. Clear communication is as important as ever when one team member is on the sidelines, and if you have a team behind you that supports the process, everyone involved will get stronger in the long run.
Long-term physical recovery is a situation most of us don’t think about until we find ourselves in it. As horse trainers and riders, we’re used to going at 100 miles per hour every day, so when accidents happen, and we’re left with nothing to do but rest, it’s natural for us to want to rush the process. After several serious injuries in my life, I’m at a point where I recognize the value in taking true time to rest and reset so I can come back better than before, in every aspect. I’m the leader of my operation, and I want to set a good example in every part of my business: mentally, physically and emotionally.
Caitlyn Shiels is a hunter/jumper professional currently operating her own True North Stables, with bases in Illinois and Florida. Shiels is dedicated to providing individualized training that allows horses and riders of all levels to achieve their goals.