There were warning signs (there always are). I thought I was smart enough to read and account for them that day: cold morning, colt’s first horse show, too many horses being ridden or longed in the arena, to name a few.
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But my horse did spook, then rear, his hind foot slipping under the arena fence and striking the concrete on the other side. I came off, ultimately landing on the far side of the fence.
As I lay on the ground, I made a mental check of body parts. My head was unharmed (my hat was still on). My back—which had survived surgery 28 years earlier—seemed to have survived, as well. My bad knee was no worse for the wear, but my other leg was pointing in an odd direction.
With everyone gathering around me, I made a decision to remain calm and positive. Pulling my phone out of my pocket, I called my assistant trainer to come check my horse, whose four legs, when I peered at them through the fence, at least appeared normal.
Then I called my husband. As I explained how my leg looked, he broke in to ask if I’d called an ambulance. That had never occurred to me! After the paramedics arrived, one of them struggled to get a heart monitor in place before finally throwing up his hands in frustration.
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“I don’t know what kind of a bra that is—there’s a hook and a zipper, and I can’t undo it!”
In the ambulance, I announced proudly to the paramedics that I could move my toes and foot, a fact that amazed me given the lack of a connection through bone. The looks on their faces told the story of their thoughts: crazy, drugged-out horse lady.
It’s easy to look back now and chuckle, but the reality of my recovery is that I had a great surgeon, a devoted husband, and a superb team whose goal was to get me back on a horse as soon as possible. It takes all that, believe me—plus a passion that burns so strongly it consumes every doubt you might have about recovery.
The doctor said it would be 90 days before my leg could take the stress of riding. So, exactly 90 days later, I stuck my now-healed left leg in the stirrup and stepped on a horse.
From past recoveries, I knew it would take time to get my “feel” and strength back. That first ride, I made sure I was in a safe arena, with someone holding my horse’s head for that predictably awkward mounting. Once astride, I felt my horse tense and react to this “strange” rider on his back.
From that point forward, there were lots of firsts: first extended trot, first lope, first stop, and—most importantly—first time to go down the fence and turn a cow.
I knew I had a long way to go. My timing was off, and my leg was slow to react. But the elephant in the room was the courage factor. If I was timid or in the least bit afraid, I’d be forced to reevaluate my passion for going down the fence. When things get that fast on a horse, there’s no time for indecision or trepidation.
With relief, I can say that although there was frustration, I had no fear. I just kept working on improving so my horse could do his job and I could keep out of his way. Eventually, the time came to go to a show and see what we had.
Six months after the accident, I qualified for the AQHA World Show in senior working cow horse. Both my recovery and my horse’s ability to adapt to the circumstances made me proud.
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At last year’s World Show, I felt blessed to be there and participating, win, lose, or draw. After getting two horses into the finals of the senior ranch riding, I was so thankful to everyone who helped get me there. I took nothing for granted, including the hundreds of pain-free steps on the concrete throughout the 10-day stint.
As hotel magnate Bill Marriott said, “Failure? I never encountered it. All I ever met were temporary setbacks.”
My advice to anyone in similar circumstances? Never lose faith—in God, country, family, or horses.
Laurel Walker Denton, Skull Valley, Arizona, grew up on the Bar U Bar Ranch, where she and her husband, Barry, reside. An AQHA and NRCHA judge, Laurel has trained and shown horses in working cow horse, reining, and ranch riding (barubar.com).