Since regaining consciousness following a Jan. 29 fall that left her with a severe brain injury, Cassandra Kahle has held on to one specific hope: that she could regain her speech and motor skills enough to ride again. And she particularly hoped that, when the day came, the horse would be her longtime grand prix partner Pyrenes Des Louzes.
“It actually took me a while to learn how to ride him because he’s so quiet at home,” Kahle said. “He goes in a rubber snaffle. He’s just so easy. I trust him. I’ve ridden him for six years now, and he’s so trustworthy at home. And then when you get in the ring, it’s when he picks up and gets a little bit strong and becomes that real grand prix horse. But up until then, he’s so easy and quiet. You can kick. You can plop. You can do what you want, and he is such a heart of gold that way. So, I’m very lucky he is who he is. He was always kind of the one I wanted to get back on first because I could trust him, and I knew him well enough.”
By the end of May, Kahle’s physical therapy team at the Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation (New Jersey) began honing in on this goal. In addition to standard exercises used to improve balance, strength and coordination, they started incorporating situations that mimicked mounting, dismounting or sitting on a horse.
“My therapist, Peter, he is quite motivating,” Kahle said. “He’s found ways to simulate what I do at the barn. He has found a way to simulate the horse and let me practice mounting on and off and helping my balance sitting on it. Definitely that was really motivating and made me feel a lot more comfortable to try to get on—[mounting] was something I wasn’t sure how I would do. That, I thought, would be the hardest part, getting on and off. I taught him how to give me a leg up, so we were doing leg-ups and just a lot of that, and that definitely made me feel comfortable to get back on and have a little confidence there.”
Watch Kahle’s physical therapy exercises that helped her get back on a horse. Videos courtesy of Cassandra Kahle:
On July 16, the Redfield Farms crew saddled up “Pyro” (or “Pie”), and with the help of Emil Spadone, Maari Wilbur and Kahle’s mother Natasha Brash, Kahle swung her leg over her veteran partner.
“There’s obviously other horses in the barn that are safe enough, but he’s a special horse to me anyways,” Kahle said. “So to be able to get back on him, it was, a) even more motivating, and I think, b) a little emotional in a way. To just get back on a horse was a big deal, but then to get him was extra special.”
With her 2021 $100,000 Forrester Farm Equipment Grand Prix De Penn National (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania) winner, Kahle since has walked, trotted, cantered and started going over poles.
“I’ve been doing some rails on the ground—just trying to get my eye working and a little bit back to normal,” she said. “It’s been going well. I have a little bit of a ways to go. I’m not totally seeing my spots perfectly, but I feel pretty comfortable. I was worried I’d get dizzy spells, but that has not happened yet, touch wood. Luckily everything feels like I just need to get stronger, do it more and get back in shape. But I think health-wise nothing’s really come up that’s going to stop me from being able to do that.”
“I told Peter that I need to get my eye back, and he set up some hurdles, and I walk back and forth,” she continued. “He asks some questions and does different things to make me focus a little more [on] judging my distance [such as] walk 10 steps from here to here, and you have to measure out the 10 steps.”
Kahle will continue her therapy and riding Pyro—and hopes to soon add another horse to her schedule to help her regain strength. Though she feels that the 19-year-old Selle Français gelding (Kannan—Europe Ibarra) could easily compete at the grand prix level again, his main job now is helping her.
“I feel like he could probably do it next year, but I don’t know if I’ll be ready for it,” she said. “He’s going to definitely help me get going again, and then there’s really no pressure for him. Whatever he’s up to do is where he’ll stay. We’ll keep him, and there’s fields to retire him eventually. He’s part of the family. He’s not going anywhere.”
Looking back at the past six months, Kahle feels immense gratitude towards the horse community and credits its support to her recovery.
“I was just talking to someone the other day about our amazing horse community,” she said. “I feel bad for a lot of patients that don’t have that kind of support, because really that helps me keep my spirits up and helped the process so much. Having the outpouring of support and love from everybody has been really amazing.
“I don’t even really know how to thank everybody,” she continued. “It’s amazing what they are able to do. Definitely that was a big difference.”