‘BACK’ STORIES Part One: Maclay Medals and Invisible Aids
With Maclay medal classes currently in the news, I thought it fitting to honor all the hard work, challenges and ‘back’ stories riders experience before coaches, judges or spectators lay eyes on us in the arena. The following account of my own Maclay medal experience has its very own ‘back’ story.
Ticket to Ride…
As a young adult, at the age of 16, in between riding multiple horses, Pony Club, competitions, three-day eventing, fox hunting and, oh yeah…school, I began teaching riding lessons to about 30 students weekly. With this busy schedule, I thought the painful twinges in my back were just from the extra activity and would eventually go away.
Until the day I stood up to leave my drivers ed class and couldn’t walk.
I could feel a wall of tears start to stream down my cheeks. I tried staring down at my feet, willing them to move. The excruciating message from my back froze my body to the tan linoleum floor. Without a word my teacher/football coach nodded toward two JV football players. Those big guys made a bee-line for me. Forming a muscle man arm swing, carefully cradling my tearful, embarrassed self, the two carried me to the nurse’s office, then out to the car when my mother arrived.
She’d already made an appointment with a neurosurgeon. We skipped the waiting room and went directly into his office. Even back then, the x-rays were telling. It seems the fall I’d taken ice skating two years prior was to blame. Apparently, the discs at the base of my spine were herniated so acutely, one wrong sneeze and the unthinkable could really happen.
You are never prepared to hear, “Do you ever want to walk again?” Let alone, “Do you ever want to ride again?” You follow your doctor into this twilight zone of, “Did he just ask me that?” As if there is an alternative answer, an undeniable yet, semi-ethereal “yes” finds its way out. Then you swim in dark waters for a while as you process your surreal circumstances and the question you were just asked. When you surface, sort of, you find a way to be present and listen. Sort of.
The answer was still “yes.”
No question but to follow doctor’s orders. I was bedridden flat on my back for months. Lay flat…don’t move. Lay flat, don’t move. Lay flat, stare at the ceiling, try to sleep, don’t move. Then you can ride! Sneezing into my pillow was exhausting and scary. Walking was almost unbearable. The bathroom was 4 feet from the bed. Oh, the little things we take for granted.
Walking, without pain, would come in time. I was sure of it. Laying flat for as long as it took was my ticket to ride. So, I did.
Just my luck, missing two months of school wasn’t going to cut it. When I went back, even though someone was carrying my books for me, even though I was using a wheel chair and taking the elevator to get to classes, when it came time to stand up and make it around on my own, it was a no go. So, back to bed I went. One more month flat on my back. Ambulatory once again, slow going was so much better than complete stall rest!
Truthfully, I can say, most of my teachers were not as understanding as I’d hoped. Becoming the object of pity from my fellow students wasn’t much fun, either. However, I chose to ignore their judgement and looks, and carry on. Myopically focused on getting back on Spinner, I used my invisible ‘horse girl’ force field shield to deflect their ignorance. I was equally determined to show them the mettle I was made of with my, ‘just watch me come back’ attitude.
Besides, Spinner was calling me. I had a lot of support and help and humans aiding my recovery. However, Spinner was my secret invisible aid!
Just because I couldn’t ride or see him, somewhere in space and time during my recovery, Spinner and I were with each other and thinking about together. When we met he was a coming 3-year-old. We bonded instantly. In our three plus years together, we still had far to go, however, we had developed a great partnership.
Now, Spinner had become my invisible aid…inspiring me to remain connected energetically while my body had time to heal. Beyond the pain, I focused on my muscle memory reminding me of our rhythm and synchronicity. I knew when I got back on my copper coated horse, who whinnied to me from his stall when he heard my car door shut, who danced with me in the pasture running beside him when no one was watching, that no amount of pain, time apart, peer glares and teacher taunts could keep me from getting back on board my shining knight of a horse cloaked in invisible inspiration.
Spinner made me believe in myself…that anything was possible.
Six months from that day in drivers ed class, finally, I could go to the barn and ‘see’ him…from a distance. My doctor banned me from even getting close. When I arrived, a friend had Spinner ready and waiting in the indoor. My shining beacon of love was a sight for my sore eyes, which would have to enjoy him from the 50 feet of prison space between us. Glaring at me out of the corner of his left eye, swishing his tail like a foot tap, he was waiting for me to walk over and get the heck on with our routine! I could feel my heart jump for joy and break in two at the same time. Poor thing didn’t understand why I was so far away.
I could tell no one had ridden him. He was just a blubber tub. While I was recuperating, more than a few of my friends offered to help keep him in shape. An extremely sensitive, smart horse with a Secretariat-long stride, not to mention surprise bucking outbursts, Spinner’s power intimidated most. More than a few, “How on Earth do you ride him?!” came my way.
Complimentary, yet, I needed someone who could keep him legged up and thinking while I was recovering. We finally found a match in Carol Durand’s son, Dana.
Back in the Tack!
My time off Spinner was the longest year and a half of my young life. At last, the day came when I could ride again. And not too soon, either. My last chance to qualify for the Maclay medal was just four months away. The question was, could I be ready?
Bev Chester, Joe Mackey, all my coaches and friends were patient, stuck with me, helped me regain strength and focused on how we were going to meet this challenge. I had to make some changes in how I rode, adapt to the nerve damage and muscle weakness down my left leg and into my left ankle. My balance was off a bit, and I was protective of my back, not wanting to reinjure myself.
However, with a lot of great coaching, months of no stirrup practice and religiously doing floor exercises the neurosurgeon gave me, the upcoming September show was my last and only chance to qualify to prove my riding and equitation skills in the Medal class.
I had to be ready.
Somehow, every parent, spectator, instructor and available person with two hands and a camera were glued to the rail during my round. My Maclay medal photo was taken the day after we won the class. What you see in the photo is an example of the end-product, of what I looked like as a ‘back in the day’ Maclay medal winner. I really wish I could change the jump in my day after photo into the 3’9″–4’3” medal round of oxers, verticals and combinations that had been dismantled and were tidily laying down, sitting on the flatbed trailer, ready to be put back in the barn. All that was left for a photo op were those two lonely poles in desperate need of a new paint job, balancing in the Kansas wind. One unsteady, 3-foot leaning tower of Pisa schooling jump.
So, all I had were two day after memorable photos of my Maclay medal win. No blue ribbon presentation photos, no pictures of the judge shaking my hand or congratulating my winning round.
The GOOD NEWS is…
I DID IT!
Spinner…WE DID IT!
The one and only chance Spinner and I had to compete for, let alone win a Maclay medal, remains one of my most treasured memories. Overcoming the physical challenges in my own ‘back’ story to accomplish what I did made me stronger, a better rider and communicator. It also helped me become a more educated instructor, not to mention a humbler human being.
The real ‘back’ story for us all? Horses inspire us to believe in our abilities, encourage us to overcome and excel, and help us accomplish what seems to be impossible. They make the invisible appear in our hearts and leave lasting memories in every muscle.
Who are we to doubt their faith in us?