Last year was one full of life-changing challenges.
Near the end of the 2020 HITS Ocala winter circuit, I injured my knee and could not walk. I was unable to work the final two weeks of the circuit, and then the COVID-19 and quarantines shutdown everything. I went home to South Carolina with my boyfriend, Lee, where I was able to see an orthopedist and have an MRI done on my knee.
The results came back quickly: I needed surgery to fix a hole in my medial patellofemoral ligament. I agreed to the reconstruction, but the recovery was the most difficult thing I have ever gone through. I did countless aggressive physical therapy sessions (an hour and a half a day, three times a week) for 11 months, plus acupuncture, massage and chiropractic appointments to jump start my recovery.
I had good days and bad. I cried, I felt like I was drowning, I felt defeated, I experienced frustration, I celebrated the little “wins,” I took two steps forward and 10 steps back, and I was forced to rely on other people for help. God bless Lee and his mom for helping me every step of the way. Six months after my surgery, I was back on a horse for 10 minutes. After that, I thought I was ready to jump back into riding.
But, when I took a small riding/teaching job with Wendy Arndt in Ridge Spring, South Carolina, something still didn’t feel right in my body. My hip and back were constantly on fire, and it seemed to worsen even as my physical therapist tried to strengthen my hip muscles.
I turned down winter jobs in Florida and Gulfport (Mississippi) because I knew I wasn’t physically capable of withstanding 10 weeks of a winter circuit. I’ve done 11 years of Florida circuits, and I know that if you start off not feeling physically capable, you’ll give up and quit or you’ll injure yourself more. My focus needed to be on getting my body to function correctly again, not trying to survive a marathon circuit.
Long story short, I ended up back at the orthopedist in February for an MRI of my hip. A month after the first appointment, my doctor discovered I had a tear in my hip labrum that needs surgery to repair. I’m only 30.
The doctor told me I have a very good chance of making full recovery and returning to full range of motion. To get there, though, in addition to surgery, I will need to stop riding for at least three months, and need four more months of physical therapy. Back to square one.
My doctor insisted I would feel like a new person once this chronic, daily pain is eliminated. Both he and my physical therapist were optimistic that my riding would improve dramatically if every muscle and ligament in my body could function properly.
Surgery meant that I would have to give myself time to heal, time to rehabilitate and time to re-learn how to walk. (This will be the sixth time that I have had to learn how to walk.) It meant going back to the mantra, “one day at a time.” I would have to take this step by step, day by day. Like most horse people, I’m not good at resting. I want to go, go, go all the time.
What do you do when almost all of your work tasks inflict pain? Longeing horses hurts, walking hurts, riding hurts, getting yanked by a horse reaching for grass hurts, moving bales of hay hurts, pushing a full wheelbarrow hurts, mucking stalls hurts, dumping water buckets hurts, and lifting tack trunks hurts.
And if you know me at all, you know that I’m never too proud to muck a stall. I just want to be normal again. I want to be around my horses without pain. I want to ride without constant pain. I want to stop living in fear of making the tear worse. I want to do things without restriction, without worrying about what could happen to me. I’m tired of saying, “No, I cannot do that.”
As much as I don’t want another surgery, I know it is necessary because I am so physically active. I want to be normal again; I’m tired of feeling restricted by my body. I scheduled the surgery for June 9. I don’t want to take more time off, but this injury needs to be addressed so I can live the rest of my life.
For those of us who work with horses full time, it’s not a question of “if” you will get hurt. It’s a question of “when.” We work with 1,200-pound animals who have minds of their own, and they have good and bad days, just like us. I guess that some part of me subconsciously knew this when I was in college—I got a bachelor’s degree with a concentration in communications just so I would always have something to fall back on, professionally.
I used to think I was invincible. And I have been very lucky on several occasions.
But the truth is that no one is invincible. You can do everything by the book and still have an accident. All I did was stand to get out of my car last year in Florida, and my knee let out a huge pop. I was in excruciating pain and couldn’t walk. Your life can completely change in the blink of an eye.
Like many of us in the equine industry, I have no health insurance. An affordable, quality health care plan is not feasible for me at this time. Health insurance is a rare employment benefit in our industry.
The health care professionals involved in my care have done everything in their power to make this surgery affordable for me, but it’s still super expensive. And it’s an expense that people in my line of work are not prepared for. I’m grateful to one of my old clients, Kirsten Noggle, her mom Karen Noggle, and my friend Emma Katterman, for setting up a GoFundMe to help me raise money for the surgery. I am forever grateful to everyone who shared it on social media and donated. I am overwhelmed by all of the support from my friends, clients and fellow professionals in this industry. Without you, I couldn’t do this surgery and return to what I love. I thank you all for helping me achieve this goal so I can get back to my horses. You all know how important they are to me.
I have two words of advice to anyone starting out in this industry: Be kind. You never know when you will need someone’s help in the future. My GoFundMe account received donations from all walks of my life: people I rode with as a child, veterinarians I’ve worked with for years, clients of my former boss, Amanda Steege. Some are people I helped at horse shows or assisted when they needed extra help to move equipment or get a difficult horse on a trailer. Others are people I went out of my way to accommodate so that their day went smoother than my own. I am so grateful to every single one of them. I do not have enough thank-you’s to express my immense feelings of gratitude.
Despite my current injury, and with extra help from my physical therapist, I managed to work the Aiken Charity Horse Show in May. My favorite horse, Amanda Steege’s Lafitte de Muze, was at that show. Due to all of my injuries, I have not seen him in over a year. It hurt my heart not being able to care for or see him daily. I was ecstatic to go over and visit with him. I had not felt this much excitement in months.
On the second day of the show, I made it over to Amanda’s barn at the end of the day to see him. Lafitte glanced over at me as I opened the stall door, his eyes brightening. He moved toward me and sniffed my hand, making his way up my arm with his soft, white nose. I heard him take several deep breaths before resting his chin on my shoulder. I threw my arms around his neck and burst into tears. I love this horse so much.
Lafitte came into my life right before my horse, Angel, passed away. He was my rock, the one I would go sit with in his stall when I was feeling upset and missing my horse. Lafitte would let me sit there and talk to him, quietly munching his hay and mixing it in his water. Every so often he would nudge me with his nose or put his nose in my chest and look at me, like he was trying to give me his own version of a hug. He was my friend when I needed it at a time when I felt so lost. He always looks for me, and he knows when something is bothering me even before I do. Lafitte will just stare at me, his eye unblinking, and nudge me when he feels I’m anxious or upset. He has the kindest eyes of any horse I’ve ever met, and he knows who his people are.
My original plan was to work up until my surgery so I could sustain myself through my recovery time. However, that plan has changed.
Last week, a horse that I was riding decided to spook and spin twice, and I heard a loud pop in my hip. I was in tears from the pain, and I ended up missing the last two days of the Aiken horse show. That is not something I’ve ever pictured myself doing. My normal reaction to pain is not to give up and just persevere through it. But as I limped around the horse show, I realized that I didn’t need to prove anything to any professional there. They’ve all watched me limp around on my bad knee for years; they know I am tough. I elected to go home and rest the ligament. On May 10, I made the difficult decision to stop working and just wait until after my surgery, when I’m mobile and strong.
If there is one thing I’ve learned over this past year, it’s this: Sometimes, knowing when you need to stop is an important life choice. You are the only one who can look out for you. And right now, that’s exactly what I need to do.
Nicole Mandracchia grew up riding in New Jersey and was a working student while in school. She graduated from Centenary University (New Jersey) in 2013. Nicole has groomed for and managed top show barns such as Top Brass Farm (New Jersey), North Run (Vermont), Findlay’s Ridge (New York) and Ashmeadow Farm (New Jersey). She has received multiple grooming awards at prestigious horse shows throughout the country, and she regularly follows the A-rated circuit up and down the East Coast, including Florida and the major indoor finals. Her favorite part of her job is helping horses feel their best so they can do their jobs. Read more about her in “Groom Spotlight: Nicole Mandricchia Proves The Harder You Work, The Luckier You Get.” Read all of Nicole’s COTH blogs.