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Getting Back on the Horse. Literally.
I went to a boys and girls summer camp called Camp Mac, nestled in the rolling mountains in Alabama. (Yes, there ARE mountains there.) This camp is just a simple summer camp, passed from son to son through the family that founded it. Over the years it has become a paradise for kids and has been going strong for over sixty years now.
This past summer I was at this camp. Camp Mac has a horseback riding program. And once we’re ready, they take us out on the trails that wind through the mountains. Trails are always peaceful, and we usually just amble along on our horses and marvel at the scenery. Sometimes the girls in my group would rip leaves off of trees and bushes, then place them somewhere for girls behind them to pick up. It was all good fun.
Some of the horses were better than others. Some were fast and energetic, but far from dangerous. Others were slow and lazy. The horse I picked this past summer was a horse named Kitty, who was a retired roping horse. I never had problems with Kitty. He loped when I told him to, trotted when I told him to, and never tried any dastardly tricks like yanking the reins out of my hands. I liked Kitty a lot, actually.
On trail rides we always had three counselors. One in the front, one in the middle, one in the back. But on one particular day we were joined by a handful of CITs (Counselors in Training) and two burly farrier that were invited on the trail ride for fun. I was the last camper in line, with the last counselor, the CITs, and the farriers behind me. For some reason, I was being very cautious. Usually I was careful. When we went down steep hills, I let Kitty go as slow as he needed to. (Last year a horse had broken her leg and had to be put down. I didn’t want that to happen to Kitty. Or have him fall and land on top of me.) But when I climbed into the saddle that day, one thought hit me like a ton of bricks:
I am going to fall today.
It was a weird thought that came out of nowhere and I just shrugged it off. But all the same, I was careful. Nothing really happened on that trip. Until we got to a steep hill that led back down into a more forested area. When I say steep, I don’t mean vertical. I mean step enough to where you can stand alright, but steep enough to make you worry about where your horse puts his feet. As usual, I let Kitty pick his way down. A horse in front of us stopped on a rock protruding from the dirt, then kept moving. (There were a lot of rocks sticking up out of the ground. Not like…spikes or anything. But rounded rough stones that had been uncovered and worn down by a few years of erosion and horse hooves tramping across them.) Just as I thought, Kitty stopped too.
And stood there.
I kicked him in the ribs, lightly. Nothing major. With a sigh I said, “Come on Kitty.” I figured he was doing what he was trained to do: mimic the horse in front of him.
He jumped up.
I felt myself leave the saddle and scream. One minute I was looking down at the saddle and Kitty’s neck, the next I was on the ground unable to breathe. Hooves danced in front of my face and I screamed again. He was going to step on me. Hurt me bad. Kill me, even. Horses are heavy animals. If one stomps on your stomach, you may come away with just a bruise. Or you could come away with internal bleeding and in need of immediate surgery.
But he didn’t step on me.
I saw him run forward a bit and stop next to a tree. He looked spooked.
Not nearly as spooked as I was, though. Shock left my mind blank. What had just happened? I’d never fallen off a horse. Much less been thrown off. ESPECIALLY not by Kitty, one of the most well-mannered horses I’d ever ridden. First, I sat up. Just to make sure I could. I’d landed on my back, and I was pretty sure I’d landed on a rock too. And even though I could feel everything and I was able to at least sit up, this was the first thought to pierce through my stupor:
Paralyzed. Oh God, oh God, I’m gonna be paralyzed.
I tried to speak. That’s when I figured out I couldn’t breathe. It came out as a weak, hoarse “Ooh.” I tried again. Same results. I was freaking out now. I couldn’t breathe. Was this normal? This couldn’t be normal. I tried to take gulping breaths of air. But it didn’t seem to work. Next I noticed my back hurt. A lot. My elbow was stinging, too, and my boot was off my left foot and a few feet away.
One of the counselors were at my side instantly. One of the farriers jogged over to Kitty and tied his reins around a branch. The other farrier came and sat beside me. All the other girls, still on their horses, turned to look. They were as shocked as I was. A few girls said, “Are you ok?” But it wasn’t answered. I just sat there, trying to breathe and shaking. My mind was slowly beginning to work again. The counselor and farrier helped with that. They had me move each of my limbs to make sure nothing was broken. They spoke in a calm voice that reminded me of the tone my parents used when I was little and hurt or sick.
“Can you move that leg? You can? Good.”
“What about that arm? Ok, wriggle your fingers a bit. There you go, good girl.”
The counselor, who was a girl, pulled up the back of my shirt slightly as the farrier retrieved my boot. The other CITs, also girls, crouched down to look. By this time the leader of a group had jogged back to me and had taken over. They informed me it was cuts and scrapes, nothing too serious. But by now I was feeling pain in my back. A LOT of pain. It hurt to move my shoulders, but I rolled them anyway. We sat there for a few minutes. I was still stunned and they were trying to calm me down. I hadn’t freaked out yet, and they didn’t want me to.
Then another thought hit me:
Oh dear God, I’ve got back problems.
Yeah, this runs in the family. Along with every other disease known to man, practically. I had scoliosis and my mother had a weak back. And since I seemed to get everything from her, I probably had one too. It wasn’t too bad. I never had to get surgery on it or anything. But it was enough to make my doctor, and parents for that matter, worry.
What if I’d hurt something? Dislocated something? Would I have to leave camp? Go to a hospital? No, no, NO! I hated hospitals, hated them! They smelled like depression, death, and urine. They helped me to my feet. Which was about the time I started crying. Not because my back was killing me, ironically. Because my mind flashed back to how close Kitty’s hooves had come to my face. I looked back at the spot I’d landed on. My head had been resting right on a big, hard rock.
Thank God my helmet fit right.
It was then I realized things could have gotten a lot worse a lot fast. Kitty could have trampled all over me. Crushed me. Or I could have not put on my helmet properly and hurt my head when I fell. Or Kitty’s freak out might have caused the other horses to freak. I was sobbing. I told them I didn’t want to get back on, but I knew I had to. We were up on a freaking mountain. It would take forever for someone to get up there on a trail cart or something. Plus the group needed to keep moving. Eventually, they talked me into it. I walked right up to Kitty and petted his neck. As I prepared to get back on, they talked back and forth about what they’d seen.
“It looked like he lost his balance.”
“Yeah, that rock. He slipped and sort of jumped up to catch himself, then got spooked when he heard her hit the ground.”
I don’t know if that’s what happened or not. I didn’t care at that point. But I did run my hand along Kitty’s neck. Had he not meant to do it? Was his little dance around my body merely out of his own shock?
“I thought he was going to step on me.” I whimpered. I got back on to the saddle and grabbed the reins in my right hand. Both my arms were shaking.
One of the farriers said, “It looked like he was trying to step around ya, once he noticed you was on the ground.”
Somehow, that just made me cry even more.
As we continued along the trail I tried to fight back my tears. Nothing had happened. I was safe. Kitty wasn’t trying to kill me. Tons of people had fallen off horses. I’d had worse. Besides, my back didn’t hurt that bad.
…oh who was I kidding, it hurt like hell. Every step Kitty took sent a small, usually insignificant shock through my body. But now it was killing me. The girl ahead of me kept looking back, seeing the grimace on my face and said, “You can cry if you want. No one would think less of you.”
That was a relief to hear her say that. I hated crying in public. It made me feel weak. And I hated feeling weak, because I knew I WAS weak. Anyone could break me. Emotionally and physically. Like a little glass doll. A little glass doll that Kitty had the decency to step around. So I cried. First silently, then sobbing a bit. I calmed down by the time we reached the barn, though cried again when the trunk drove us all back to the main part of camp. (The stables were about a mile down the road from the cabins, rec hall, dining hall, and everything else.) Mainly because I was asked to recount what happened many times. And many times I realized again and again how easily he could have just stepped on me and killed me.
But before that, when we were putting the horses up, (As the last group of the day, we always took their saddles and bridles off with help from counselors.) I passed one of the farriers while leading Kitty in to have his bridle taken off.
“Little lady,” he called. I looked. “Falling off a horse for the first time ain’t easy. Sure ain’t fun. And it takes a lot of courage to get right back on like you did. That took guts. I’m proud of you.” Sure, it shouldn’t have meant much. I didn’t even know this guy’s name. So why should I care whether or not he was proud of me? But I didn’t. I wanted to argue that I didn’t want to get back on. I pretty much had to.
I smiled at him and squeaked my thanks. Yeah, I didn’t want to. But I got back on. And I’m happy I did. My back eventually stopped hurting after a few visit’s to the camp nurse. She gave me a few painkillers my mom had give her, just in case I should need them. The girls in my cabin were sweet as could be. Upon my arrival back from the stables they asked if I was ok, asked what had happened. No one complained when I didn’t do my share of the chores that rest period. No one called me dramatic or a baby.
Yeah, getting back up on the horse is hard I guess.
But it’s a lot easier when you’ve got people to help you back into the saddle.