The Horseback Riding Accident

The Horse

The horse I ride each week, dark brown with a white blaze on his forehead, is named Harry Potter. A gelding used for teaching beginning riders such as me, I greet him with carrots and apples.

In my editor’s letter to be published in a regional magazine, I have shared with readers how I feel confident astride a horse and how the grip of my legs against the horse’s flanks and the shift of my weight enables me to communicate. This is a lie. I don’t feel confident at all. I feel nervous each time I put my left foot into the metal stirrup and heave my right leg up and over to settle into the saddle. Often I find myself staring at the brown packed earth, calculating the distance down— five maybe six feet?

They say horses sense our feelings. Does Harry know I’m afraid?

I never tell my husband Peter. I keep this information hidden within, choosing to use it as a counterbalance, forcing me to focus in the moment. Relentlessly my mind spins forward: deadlines, cover shots, story assignments, what to serve for dinner. So although I am scared, it’s a relief to block everything else out.

I concentrate on becoming one with the horse and feeling the rhythm of his movements.

The Marriage

It is Peter’s idea to take riding lessons. I am reluctant at first, but he convinces me it would be fun. I remember wanting to learn how to ride a horse as a child and my parents, being city people, saying, “No, it’s too expensive, too dangerous.” This is my chance.

 I am in a marriage that needs repair. I’ve been spending too much focusing on my work, walled inside my own thoughts. Our daughter Alex is in her second year of college 3000 miles away. Her older brothers left home years earlier.

Our Sunday afternoon riding lesson become our time to reconnect. We have one task during our lessons, to learn the basic commands that enable us to tell our horse when to: start and stop; turn left and right; walk, trot, and canter. No pressure. Just pay attention to our instructor and the horse.

The Riding Instructor

We arrive at the stables and learn our teacher is gone, on vacation. She has been replaced by a perky girl our daughter’s age. Inhaling the familiar barn smell of leather, hay, and manure, I try to process this information. “Want to go trail riding?” our new instructor Kim asks.

 Peter and I look at one another. Our only riding experience beyond the indoor riding ring has been on flat fields where the horses pasture. We’ve heard about a network of trails that lead through the woods, but these are for the more advanced riders.

“Okay,” she says, “Get your horses ready.”

Riding our horses at a walk, Kim leads the way past the barn and the post and rail fence, towards the start of a trail. The trees cast shadows on the green clover pasture. The path leads downwards and looks steep. We’ve never tried anything like this. Does she know we’re beginners?

The Accident

I wake up. Flat on my back. Head pinned against a tree. Unable to move. Helmet gone. Tingling hands. Tingling arms. What happened to my helmet? Why can’t I feel my feet?

Pain scratches into the side of my face. An abrasion is near my eye.

I look down at my hands. I’m still holding the leather reins, gripping them tightly but they have been torn from the bridle. I see my helmet nestled amongst the leaves 25 yards away.

Honey? I hear my husband’s voice. I struggle to focus both eyes so I can see him. He kneels down beside me and I can only see the outline of him. Gradually, the details of his face come into view: dark eyes, full lower lip, mustache and clipped beard. Drops of sweat are running down his pale face.

Fully reawakened, I begin to panic. Oh no. This is it. You really did it now. You’re paralyzed. You won’t be able to walk. Really messed things up. You’ll be in a wheelchair for the rest of your life.

I try to wiggle my toes. They refuse to obey.

Why didn’t I stop and wait, when Harry had refused to go down the hill? I replay the scene in my mind. Instead of calling out to the instructor for help I said, “Come on Harry,” squeezed my knees and pulled on the reins.

Despite my entreaties he refused to budge. “Come on.” I tried stroking his mane and coat. My heart raced.

No, I can do this, I told myself. Think of the signals you’ve been taught.

I squeezed my knees a second time. Jerked the reins. Pushed my hips forward and he started moving, then stumbled and I could feel myself slipping and everything going into fast motion. Whoa. I pulled harder and harder on the reins. Whoa. But instead of slowing, he went faster.

My last memory is grass, bramble, stars, then blackness.

 “Don’t try to move,” Peter holds my hand. “Stay where you are.” I stay still, but I try to wiggle my toes. Maybe if I can move my toes. My hands continue to burn and buzz.

 “Get the horses,” Peter tells Kim. “ Move them away before they step on her. Tie them up and call 911.”

The Rescue

I hear the helicopter approach—pucca, pucca, pucca, pucca— the sound reminds me of sheets flapping in a hard swift wind. I am looking up at blue sky and people’s faces. The sound grows louder: pucca, pucca, pucca. It builds up like waves and subsides.

“Do you know what day it is?” asks one of the paramedics. “Can you tell me what day you were born? Where do you live? What year is it?”

I answer their questions correctly but will this weird tingling in my fingers, hands and arms ever stop? I think I can feel my toes now. Maybe my feet. Will I be able to walk?

“I’ve never seen this before,” the stable manager says when they bring me, strapped on to a spinal board, in the back of a pick-up truck to an open field where the helicopter is waiting. “I’ve never seen anyone completely tear apart a set of leather reins. Broke them into two pieces.”

“He wouldn’t stop,” I say, “Wouldn’t slow down.”

I’m cold, so cold.  “How long have you been a paramedic?” I ask. “How many people each week are airlifted on a helicopter? Yes, a blanket would be nice. Thank you for the blanket. We’re going to Maryland Shock Trauma? That’s in Baltimore right? What’s your name again. I want to remember your name, so I can write about what a nice job you did.”

The paramedic tells me he thinks I broke a few ribs. I worry about my back. He tells me to stay very still, but I wiggle my toes and feet, delighted feeling and movement has returned.

“A horseback accident?” the nurse in the ER says. “Need some pain meds?” Snip. Snip. He cuts off my T-shirt and blue-jeans. The smell of rubbing alcohol. Jab and sting of the needle. “Is that better now?” The edges of pain are not as sharp.

 Initial x-rays of my head and spine show back fractures, but it does not appear there is any damage to my spinal cord. This means I’m not paralyzed. I should be able to walk. The doctors are cautious. The technical details are fuzzy. I’m still in shock. They plan to take an MRI for more detail.

 “Horses are tough,” my nurse says, “ I was thrown once inside a barn and landed flat on my back on a concrete floor. Broke my back in two places. Missed a few months of work. But I recovered.”

I introduce Peter to my nurse when he gets to the hospital. “He broke his back,” I say, “and look at him now.” There is a reason I got this nurse, I tell myself.


I am home three days later. “Pat a cake. Pat a cake baker’s man,” my husband chants. He sprinkles me with white corn starch after giving me a sponge bath, smoothing the powder over lotion. I live inside a shell extending from my shoulders to my hips made of molded plastic —what is referred to as a custom thoracic lumbar sacral orthotic (TLSO)—to keep my spine straight, fixed in place. I wear elastic waisted sweatpants. Peter has to help me tie my shoes. I feel like a much loved but disabled child. No major head trauma. No spinal cord damage. Three parts of the back: cervical, thoracic and lumbar, and I am diagnosed with a fracture in each section. But with my brace I can walk.

“It’s like baking bread,” he says and I start to laugh but it hurts too much. My entire body is strained and bruised. I am grateful for Peter’s tender ministrations.

 “Could you call the magazine?” I ask him, “Give them an update on my injuries. Tell them I don’t think we can run that piece I wrote.”

Friends bring vegetable soup and home baked bread. My fingers can type on my computer keyboard, but I can barely lift a plastic cup filled with water. Unable to sleep at night and refusing to take opiate pain medication, I lie on my daughter’s twin bed and listen to books on tape. I work from home and spend a few hours each week at the office. The side of my face remains scabbed and swollen.

Two weeks in the neck brace and the doctor decides the x-ray was misinterpreted and I do not have a cervical fracture. Hurrah, I can throw away the neck brace. But two months inside the TLSO with no hot showers, only sponge baths is icky. Later physical therapy. Heating pad and ultra sound to stretch scar tissue. Exercises for balance. Lift weights. Then ice. Take another Naproxen.

I start physical therapy in early spring and stick with it for eight more months. I move on to Pilates with a trainer, yoga and dance. One year after the accident I look for an activity my husband and I can do together.


I fumble with the straps of my high heeled shoes. Leather or suede bottoms are the best for Tango steps. If the straps are tight and secure, I tell myself, it will be easier to keep my balance.

We take weekly lessons. One hour, in a circle, with other beginners. Leaders and followers. Argentine tango is danced in close embrace, two bodies merged into one. When my husband shifts his weight and moves, I do the same. I mirror his steps until he leads me into cross steps and figure eights. The wall I built between us is starting to dissolve.

Some days my back aches. As long as the pain is not sharp, I tell myself, I will be okay.

Together, there is frustration and despair each time we stumble. We must reveal when new steps confuse us. Learn humility. Nothing is ever perfect. But we can keep trying. I can do this.



Nadja MarilNadja Maril is a former magazine editor and journalist living in Annapolis, Maryland, USA. She has an MFA from the Stonecoast Program at University of Southern Maine and her work has been published in literary magazines that include The Journal of Creative ArtsLunch Ticket and Invisible City Literary Review. She is currently working on a novel and additional credits include weekly blogposts at Follow her on Twitter at SNMaril.