Unknowing bystanders might have viewed Sarah Pollock and her entourage as drama queens that December day at Showpark. The 20-year-old amateur jumper rider emerged from her round in the Lexus Mini Prix in near hysterics. She hopped off to hug her mother Kathy Pollock, who was perhaps more excited than Sarah, and her trainer, an all-smiles Hope Davis.
It was a good round, yes. A second clear go, but not fast enough amongst tough competition for more than sixth place. It was a victory of another sort, however, and one of several in Sarah's ongoing recovery from a severe back injury two years ago. "I'm sure everybody thought we were ridiculous," laughs Sarah of her team's celebratory mood. But those who know this chapter of Sarah's story understood perfectly.
In February of 2011, Sarah and her current jumper mount Chancho parted ways on course. It didn't seem like a bad fall at first, except that a normally stoic Sarah didn't move after hitting the dirt. When she finally did get up, she wanted to get right back on, as she had been taught. Hope was worried about a concussion and insisted Sarah go to the ER. Instead of a head injury, X-rays revealed compression fractures in three vertebrae and three herniated disks. For the first of several times, doctors advised her to forget about riding.
The ambitious and determined young rider didn't digest it all right away.
Kathy Pollock recalls that her daughter was distraught, not because of the pain or the diagnosis, but because it was clear she wouldn't be riding at Thermal that year. It turns out that was the least of her problems. After three months, Sarah got her surgeon's OK to try riding, but quickly realized there was something else wrong. Most likely aggravated or triggered by her fall, severe arthritis was diagnosed in her facet joint, the lower back joints that enable bending forward and backward. At 18, she faced a life of chronic back pain and recommendations from just about everybody to quit riding.
Sarah started riding at 4 and a life without horses was simply not in the cards. "Take away my riding and you'll take away my life," was Sarah's statement to her mom that day in the ER. Given that perfect storm of parenting dilemmas, Kathy realized, "I had to throw in the towel and let her get back on a horse."
Sarah returned to Hope's Camino Real Farm in Riverside County's Murrieta with more than back pain standing between her and her goal to return to the 1.2M jumper division. Starting back on a relatively calm, safe horse, "It was a good day if I made it around the arena once at the walk and trot," Sarah recalls. "I had a lot of mental frustrations. I was afraid, but I'm stubborn so I wouldn't admit it."
Whitney Tucker kept Chancho fit during the six months it took Sarah to gain the physical strength needed to get back on him. The mental aspect was another story. "Once I was riding my own horse full time again, I had these moments where I would just shut down and start crying and hyper-ventilating. It was like a panic attack. I wasn't afraid of the pain, I was afraid of the long process of healing and the possibility of not being able to ride again."
Hope worked with Sarah six days a week, most days talking her back from an invisible brink. "She just talked to me until I could start breathing again, and then she insisted that I do something to move forward," Sarah explains. "She didn't baby me, but she knew me well enough to know that I was going through something bad." Sarah was already grateful for Hope before she got hurt and now she's also in awe of her patience and support. "No other trainer would have the patience to work with me like she did. She never gave up on me when everyone else did. Her goals are as big as mine and I wouldn't be the rider I am today without her behind me every step of the way. She was my backbone when mine was broken."
Hope is a horse trainer, not a therapist, but she knew how to help Sarah, who came to her at 13 with little formal training. "You need someone on the ground that honestly believes in you and knows that you can work through it," Hope says. "That's what I did for Sarah."
When Sarah first returned to the show ring, in the summer of 2012, it was a 3' class and Hope didn't give a dang whether her student finished the course or not. "She told me to gallop around and just jump one fence if I wanted to," Sarah says. By September, she returned to the 4' ranks and won a class at that height.
Watching Sarah have a clean Mini Prix go at Show Park was a thrill that Hope was prepared for because of her hands-on role in Sarah's
riding recovery. Sarah's mom, however, was
in a different position.
Although torn between their daughter's safety and her passion, the Pollocks showed their support by funding continued training but Kathy was unable to watch Sarah ride after the injury. The couple has two daughters in the sport and are used to its risks, yet Kathy could no longer handle it. When she mustered the nerve, it was worth it. "When she went in there and just knocked it out of the park, against all those pros, we just couldn't contain ourselves," relays Kathy of her and Sarah's revelry after the Mini Prix ride in December. Sarah's comeback transformed her father from a passive railbird to a sideline coach. Now he watches other rounds and keeps Sarah posted on what times she needs to win. "I think seeing me come so far has gotten them both into the sport more and helped them understand what it means to me."
Sarah is confident the mental blocks are behind her. In late 2012, she underwent a lumbar radio frequency surgery, which burns nerves surrounding the spine so they can no longer send pain signals to the brain. That reduced her lower back pain by about 20 percent. "I'm mobile, I'm walking, I'm riding," Sarah says. "The pain I feel every day is well worth it."
Even though many doctors told her not to ride anymore, she's convinced that the activity greatly eases the arthritis pain. "I don't know if it's a mental block, but I just don't feel the pain when I'm riding," she says. She is taking some of the doctors' advice to heart: "I've been told I can't sit still for more than 15 minutes with my condition, so there's no way I could ever get an office job!" It's one more reason to keep riding and to stay on course with
Back On Track
Kathy and Hope have no doubt Sarah will fulfill her international aspirations. She was a determined kid before the accident and is all the more so now. Chancho has probably topped out at the Mini Prix level and funds for a ready-made Grand Prix mount are not in the family budget. Plan A is to marry Prince Harry and ride with royal funding, jokes Sarah, who is already underway on a more practical plan B for accruing international mileage.
A junior at Cal Poly Pomona, where she's a marketing major and captain of the equestrian team, Sarah learned about the Intercollegiate Equestrian World Finals from her Cal Poly coach, who had ridden in the event herself. Sarah was not daunted by the fact that half the Finals' score comes from dressage, which she'd never tried before. Long story short, she applied, crossed her fingers and said "yes" when a last minute opening arose to zip off to Norway with two U.S. team members from Wisconsin. Before leaving, she snuck in a few effective dressage lessons with eventing trainer Tamie Smith.
"Never in a million years did I think I could have gone from a broken back to representing the USA in less than two years," Sarah admits. The team wound up seventh overall and the experience broadened Sarah's perspective. "They have a lot of balls!" she says of the European competition. "Even those with more dressage background, you put them on a 1.4M horse and they go and do it. When I came home, I realized how we take so much time to learn about style and perfection. I envy how they'll just get on a not-so-nice horse and get it done."
Sarah also had some exposure to European riding as a working student for international rider Gaby Salick in Los Angeles. Grooming for a show jumping rider in Europe is a possible next stepping stone for Sarah, who embraces a "whatever it takes" attitude toward reaching her next goal.
She's been encouraged to receive compliments about recent show rounds from people who have no idea of her physical and mental challenges. One of them came from German star Marcus Beerbaum, via Gaby Salick. It was a reference to Sarah's good hands while riding, which is kind of funny considering that Hope recalls Sarah had "the worst hands I've ever seen" when she arrived at Camino Real Farm as a teenager.
Injury or no, that's a lot of progress to make as a rider. And it's the kind of progress that gives substance to equestrian dreams that Sarah knows "may seem far fetched and clichéd." Thanks to a great support team and her own boundless determination, Sarah is going for it and she seems to be at her best when the odds are longest.