Let's talk about what we all don't want to talk about.
Overall I consider myself to be a safe professional. I always wear a helmet. If I think my horse is going to be too wild, I turn it out or throw it on the lunge. I am not a thrill seeker, but rather in my own eyes, I am a realist. I am brave, but I am not asking for it. I diligently try to keep my students and myself safe.
For the first 24 years of my riding career, I have come to know now, I was very lucky. I had never had an accident that landed me in the hospital, or a broken bone, nothing more than a scratch or a bruise, I just dusted myself off and got back on. However, I never felt invincible. I have always had respect for my horses and this sport. I never felt the need to prove anything by getting on a horse that for me was unrideable and maybe that is what kept me safe for so long.
On June 12, 2015 I was riding my favorite and best horse in the performance hunters. This horse had taken me to my first professional classes at Nationals, in my first International Derby, and to anywhere and everywhere I wanted to go and was always a knock out. Needless to say, I felt safe on him. On the second day of the division at Spring Spectacular, he caught a toe coming into the two stride. He fell through the vertical into the line. I landed on my chin causing some lacerations on my face. I have always been one to jump up upon hitting the ground, which in the past has served me well, but not on this day. As I was getting up, my horse who had flipped head over heels was getting up as well. He inadvertently hit me with his hoof in the left temple of my head as we were both trying to right ourselves. This knocked me out cold. I don't remember much of those moments or the moments after, only what I can piece together from stories. In that moment I have been told I was panic stricken, but not for the reasons you would imagine. I wasn't concerned for me, I was concerned for my horse and for the day of work I knew I would miss. I was in charge of my team. I knew when they had to be on, where they needed to be, and when they needed to be there. I was worried about what would happen if I wasn't there. Had I taught them well enough to conduct the day successfully without me? I couldn't rest. I sent countless texts to my assistants and grooms from the ambulance and hospital trying to help as much as I could. I know now, I have the right staff who could function without me. But in that moment, I was panic stricken that I could not be there. The entire time I was just itching to be back at the show.
There is a quote, that riding isn't a sport but rather a lifestyle and that is so true for me. In that moment, the hardest thing was comprehending that I couldn't be there. My wounds and concussion put me out of commission for awhile, and I wish I could say that was the worst of it. I was itching to get back on. I had to watch my students and my horses showing and working and it was difficult to not be in the ring with them. I just wanted to get back on. But when I did, that was when I discovered the work I needed to do to get back to where I was.
I don't remember much of what happened. I think that is for the best, but I was wrong when I thought that meant I was getting away unscathed. When I got back in the saddle, I wasn't scared at first, but oh it came. Two weeks after I got back on, I walked into the show ring. I tried to pretend I was okay. But my instincts were wrong. I was scared. I started pulling and hesitating at the fence. When my horse tapped the rail, I tensed up in fear he would fall down. In August I went to Kentucky, Kelley Farmer, a good friend and great rider came to me and said, "Ashleen, I've seen you do a lot of things. But this is not you." Tearfully I told her, I know, but I am scared. And she told me, "You are not the first rider to have this happen to you. You need to get over your fear. You need to go home and practice and practice. When you are ready, then come back to the ring." If anyone knows, she does. She is one of the riders I look up to most. And not because she is the best (even though she is) but because she is so unbelievably human. She's been hurt countless times, and she has figured out how to get over it. And not just get over it, but to thrive and become the best. So I took her words to heart, and I went home and a pushed myself. I've been told it's called flooding, I went home and I just dove into jumping. I jumped all of the horses at my disposal. I set up simple exercises and I practiced and practiced. When I thought I had enough, I practiced some more. When I was ready, I went to the shows and left my help at home so I could figure it out. If I relied on the people who worked for me they would help me and let me live in this fear. It took a lot of time, a lot of deep breaths, and telling myself I was not going to die, but I got over it.
It funny though, through all of that, not at any point did I think of stopping. No part of me ever thought about giving up riding. The only torture was trying to figure out how I was going to get over it. Not feeling great about my riding translated to many other areas of my life. Since I was little, riding has always created a sense of confidence for me. Then it grew into a career and I really took to it. It has always been one of the biggest parts of my life. But when I didn't have the confidence riding gave me, I doubted other areas of my life. It was affecting my relationships with my family and friends. I lost sight of my goals, my ideals, and my passion. I worked tirelessly. I had plenty of moments before walking in the ring where I just wanted to turn around and go back to the barn. But I faced it, cause I needed to. I kept at it, until I felt great again. I kept reminding myself that I used to love that moment before you walk in the ring and it is all on you. I have always viewed that moment as the calm before the storm. It is that few moments before you venture out on the course. Your last seconds to firm up your plan and your track. I used to savor these moments. Sometimes the stakes aren't very high for a small class, and sometimes you are planning that final trip at Nationals or your handy round of the derby. But in those moments, you take your last few seconds to think about your round.
I want to pause for a second and go into these moments a bit further because I think it is important. This may very well just be me, but I don't think so. Right before I walk into the ring before a big class. A class I have been preparing for, a big money class, a derby, or that inaugural ride on a young horse. This is the last moment I have before the moment of truth. I have always loved this moment. That moment before you give it all you have. After that fateful day, for a brief moment I dreaded it, but I knew the only way to get over it was to keep at it. I took deep breaths and envisioned myself being successful until it became a reality again.
Falling off is a reality of the sport. I get that. But it is about getting back on, no matter how difficult that seems at first. If you truly love the horses and riding, you find a way to get through it. And maybe that is my point in writing this. I just want to shed light on the fact that sometimes we get hurt, sometimes we fall, just as football players get concussions. It is the reality at the end of the day, most of us won't get seriously hurt, maybe we fall and it just scares us. But you have to get over it. If riding has never scared you, than you haven't really ridden.
Only now, do I feel like I can ride well again without fear. It took 6-8 months of drilling and jumping to get my nerve back. I feel better and more driven every day. I am sure one day, I will be on the other side of the trenches again, but I know I will come back again. Recently, one of my clients gave me a compliment. And she is not known to give compliments, so that is how I know it is real. But she said, she thinks I am better now than ever and she sees a difference in me. I know hard work goes a long way. And I am not proud of what happened to me, but it did. It has happened to a lot of riders, a lot who are far greater than I. I am not the first, nor will I be the last, But I will take my scars and I will continue to try to be better. I ride horses, and I will continue to strive to be the best because that is the only thing I know to do.