California Riding Magazine • October, 2008

The Emotional Side of Riding
by Robin Heckle

It’s a given that at some point in a lifetime of having horses, you are going to have one be laid up due to an injury. Okay, probably more than once…

This is my time (again). My beloved horse Sammy, otherwise known in the show ring as Stoke The Fire, is laid up at home with an injured collateral ligament. The injury happened at the Fourth of July show at Showpark. At first I went through all the usual self-talk and denial that it wasn’t serious, telling myself, “It’s nothing big…he just tweaked himself a bit.”

Over the next couple of weeks we used the common methods of determining what was wrong. With no clear answers, this put me on a huge emotional roller coaster. There were a few days in that two-week period where Sammy seemed sound, only to come out of his stall the next day dead lame. On the days he looked sound, I’d let out a huge sigh of relief, saying things like, “Oh thank you God my horse is OK.” Then, seeing him off again the next day my emotions would crash yet again. To make matters worse, my vet for many years, Dr. Lisa Grim, was on a vacation (darn her).

I called a trusted friend and dumped some of those crazy emotions I’d been having and asked for some non-emotional guidance. She suggested I call Dr. Mark Martinelli, a renowned expert on lameness and thankfully right in my own San Diego County backyard. I called, full of hope that this person could pinpoint what was wrong and give me a solution. The ups and downs and uncertainty of the previous two weeks had taken their toll. Not to mention Sammy was clearly injured but what was wrong was still a mystery.

At Dr. Martinelli’s clinic, I got just what I was hoping for: clear-cut answers, but boy I didn’t like what they were. The doctor and his wonderful staff had done an excellent and thorough diagnostic of Sammy. Through the use of a bone scan and MRI we were able to see the damage to the ligament, know the problem and focus on the solution—right after I was done sobbing anyway.

After the sobs subsided, I was able to break free of the emotional lock this all had on me by focusing on the treatments ahead. I spent my time on the computer, researching, reading and hoping. Having the treatment options to research and being actively engaged with the vet made a pivotal difference in my ability to cope. I made a learning experience out of it. I sat with the vet and didn’t just look at the MRI but also learned about what I was looking at. In researching stem cell treatments versus IRAP I learned about some amazing new technologies that are out there. Keeping my mind engaged in this learning process was a great help for the initial shock and the emotional pain.

So here we are, we’ve just finished our sixth week of treatments. The intervals of shockwave and IRAP injections have given Sammy some clear relief. It’s funny though, while the treatments were underway it gave me something to concentrate on and keep my emotions at bay, but since the day of the last treatment I have been quite a wreck again. The waiting is grating on the thin protective coating I have formed over my emotions and every once in a while they burst out, apparently needing freedom from their confinement. Darn, I think to myself. They got me again! But I also remember to give myself a break: to acknowledge that this is hard. The more gentle I am with myself and the more I leave my expectations behind the better I feel. Staying present in today, sprinkled with hope for the future seems to be the right combination.

Surprise Saving Grace

This article would be incomplete if I didn’t mention the saving grace of all this. A friend and barn mate had purchased a lovely new mare just before Sammy’s injury. Once we knew he’d be off for an extended period she offered to share her horse with me. This was one of the most generous and gracious things I have ever seen someone do and it deeply touched me and continues to.

As any competitor knows, there are two parts of riding. The first and most important is the relationship with your horse. This is monumental in my emotional life. Second are my own riding skills, abilities and accomplishments. Losing your partner hits you in both spots and is very tough. My friend’s gesture gave me both those things back. I got to keep going with my own riding and I got to have a horse to be “Aunt Robin” to. Thank you Cathleen. Thank you.

Sammy will have another MRI in mid-October to see how well the ligament is healing. I hope to get a clean bill of health for him and start him back on a very slow program of returning to work. If we’re back in business early next year I would be thrilled.

For anyone experiencing something similar I encourage you to learn as much as you can over the journey an injured horse might take you on. I have grown as a horsewoman through this and will continue to if I let myself. I wish you all happy and healthy horses and if something does happen I wish you the best vets with the best diagnostics around. And last, I hope you each someday experience the generosity of someone like Cathleen.