Before I started horse shopping, the last time I fell off a horse, I broke my back.
It was 2010, and I was riding a friend’s Thoroughbred mare. We were cantering at the far end of the ring, and she tended to both lean and try to cut the ring short. So the next loop, I made an effort to support her with my inside leg. But I overestimated, and she went right up against the rail, where the dirt was softer. She stumbled, and I stayed on. She stumbled again, and I flew off backward. She was fine; me, not so much.
My back was killing me, but what worried me was blood in my pee. I called an aunt who was a nurse, and she told me it sounded like I had damaged my kidneys.
I very reluctantly went to an all-hours clinic. My kidneys were fine, they said—the red in my pee was probably not blood and probably just an effect of dehydration. The back pain was most likely a soft tissue injury. It would be better in six weeks or so, they said.
It was not. My primary care physician ordered more tests, and we discovered I’d actually crunched a vertebra. I had a compression fracture of my T12, nowhere near where they’d looked the first time. More rest, no riding for a while. It was my first serious injury from riding.
The mare was about 16.1 and fairly solidly built. I weighed about 220 pounds at the time. The lesson? At my weight, when I fall from that height, I break something.
I had good evidence for that. A year or so before I’d broken my arm in a household fall from about horse-height. And the back injury was only the second in a string of injuries. Immediately after healing, I got my foot caught between two rocks on a Hawaiian shore. That one was also misdiagnosed as a soft tissue injury. I’d actually broken off the edge of my second metatarsal, even though it was the side of my foot that ached. The foot injury led to years of trouble and my next 70 pounds.
The other lesson from all these injuries? Where it hurts is never where the damage is.
The two lessons combined—the idea that as a fat person, I need to stay closer to the ground while also believing that I cannot trust pain to give me an accurate idea of where the injury is—meant a shift in my thinking about which horses I should be riding. I wanted to ride the shortest horse I could that was also sturdy enough to carry me.
That spring, when I scheduled some riding time after my foot had (ostensibly) healed, I asked my trainer if I could ride her shortest draft cross. He was a bit of a crank, but he did beautifully if you rode him perfectly.
“I’ll just have to become perfect!” I told myself.
But no. No, no, no, my trainer wanted me to ride this new horse she had, an 18-hand Percheron-Thoroughbred cross.
“You’ll love him,” she promised.
I eyed him skeptically as I tacked him up. He was not a cuddly horse on the ground. Not too interested in me, not one for much interaction. Just kind of a dude who doesn’t really wanna make friends. (The secret, I would later discover, was copious quantities of molasses-coated peppermint treats.)
So, for my first ride back on this new-to-me horse, we went out hilltopping with a farmer pack. My trainer assured me that if I got tired, it was no big deal to head in early. And I would love this horse.
I’d been dying to try hunting. I’d planned to do it the fall before, but I’d broken my back. So off we went, and I wasn’t sure at first if I was falling in love with hunting or falling in love with the horse. But then there was some trappy footing at the base of a hill, and I thought he was going to stumble. “I’m going to break a knee,” I thought. “I’m going to break my hip. This is it, this is the last time I will ever ride, and I am glad it’s happening while hunting, but I’m sad it’s all over now.”
But he stayed balanced, kept us upright, and I realized this horse is never, ever gonna let me fall. He became the standard by which I judge all other horses.
If it hadn’t been for that horse, I don’t know if I would have kept riding. There was fear in my heart as I reckoned with the frailty of my body. It would have been easier and cheaper to quit.
Riding, despite the risks, was one of the few things that made me appreciate that my body was useful to me. I stopped riding to go to college—sure, Mt. Holyoke College (Massachussetts) is a great place to ride, but I was spending my riding money on tuition, and yes, there were riding scholarships, but I had no confidence that I would get one because none of the girls I saw in breeches on campus looked like me. At that point, my idea of what my body was and what it could do switched to almost entirely external things.
My appreciation for my body was dependent on other peoples’ appreciation for my body. As a fat college student, there wasn’t much of that.
When I started saddling up again after college, around 2009, I had a revelation: Riding shields me from self-hatred.
Then in 2012, when I moved home to Michigan, I lost the emotional protection that riding offers because I was too afraid of the emotional damage of being told I couldn’t ride.
People have asked why I don’t just volunteer somewhere to brush horses or do other barn chores, so I’d get my horse fix, even if there isn’t a mount suitable for my post-injury/decades of depression weight gain.
Don’t get me wrong, I love horses and like just being at the barn. I tolerate barn chores far better than household chores, for sure. But if I can’t ride, there’s a part of me that is torturing myself. I’d rather not be reminded.
So, that’s all the stuff that’s been hanging out in my mind as I started shopping for a horse this spring: fear of further injury, a belief that some horses are just too tall for me to ride even as I require a larger animal to support my weight and a sense that riding is still the missing piece to my overall mental and emotional health.
This I can promise you: Just a few weeks after I started shopping for a horse, every idea I had about injury, self-esteem and riding was challenged in one inevitable fall.
Karen Hopper Usher is returning to riding after several years away. She’s sharing her perspective and experiences as a plus-sized rider with The Chronicle of the Horse. By day, she is a reporter at a small newspaper in northern Michigan. She is horse-shopping like it’s her second job.