Three years ago, I was a 16-year-old senior at Medina Valley High School, a second-degree black belt, and a member of the flag team. My sister, Brenna, was a 13-year-old freshman at the same school, a black belt, and a member of the dance team. We both rode horses for fun.
Horses would never have been a part of my life if it weren't for my little sister. Brenna was horse crazy from the start. She had Apache, an Appaloosa gelding and I got Black Jack. Instead of the already trained, 10-year-old horse, I wound up with a 3-year-old that had never tasted a bit. The only reason I am alive to tell this story is because Black Jack turned out to be lazy, good-natured and reasonably patient.
Black Jack had no formal training other than2 weeks with a ranch hand. I just rode him until he figured out what I wanted. I could walk, trot, canter and stop, and I taught him the barrel patterns. Our fastest time was 19 seconds, our average 24; it was good enough for me. All of that time included me falling off numerous times, and getting stepped on, pushed around and bitten. We were happy.
Then, on December 6, 1999 my life ended. Brenna and I were on our way home from school that Monday when a red truck came around the curve too fast and too close. I swerved to miss but there was no shoulder and my tires went off the road dragging the '95 Mazda 626 down a ten-foot riverbank. We hit a cypress tree at the bottom and they say that's what killed my sister. The left front tire kept spinning and sparked a fire, which burned through rubber fuel lines making the fire worse. I was trapped inside the car.
My Mom was a reporter for the local newspaper at the time and was sent to cover the accident. As she was taking pictures after the fire had stopped she started to notice that the car looked familiar. It wasn't until she read the license plate number that she hit the ground.
The fire burned for an estimated time of 25-40 minutes. Long enough for me to sustain burns on 35% of my body. I was conscious the whole time but I went into shock so I don't remember it. My feet were mostly gone. My left leg and arm, as well as part of my right leg had third degree burns. At 1:00am Tuesday morning, the doctors cut off my feet below the knee.
It saved my life, but not my old life.
I spent six months in the hospital and rehab. While I was in Brooks Army Medical Center, the doctors told me I could walk, and even run, with prosthetics. I thought that learning to walk would be simple and once I could walk, I'd walk for the rest of my life. It doesn't work that way. Having prosthetics has not turned out to be as simple as I thought it would be. It used to take me an hour just to put the prosthetics on, so walking to the bathroom at 3 am was not going to happen.
I couldn't do a tornado kick any more, I couldn't stand long enough, or lunge, or jump, or anything I needed to do for a flag routine. Sometimes I couldn't even walk because of bone spurs, or break downs on my skin grafts. I couldn't ride my horse. My feet wouldn't fit in the stirrups without twisting my legs and I was too afraid to ride without my feet.
When I walked for graduation we thought life would be back to normal. I thought so too; then I tried to work with Black Jack again. He had been in a pasture with his buddies for six months. He wanted nothing to do with me. He had become impossible, nipping, rearing, and shoving me around. I was terrified of getting on him and he pushed me everywhere when I tried to lead him. I thought I just needed to walk better and then we could start over so I waited another year.
This time I took riding lessons at an equitherapy center before I got back on Black Jack. I told Kathy Harbaugh, the owner, that I was an amputee and had problems getting my legs to fit in the stirrups. She fixed the problem with a sidesaddle; I could even ride without my feet if I wanted to. Now I realize how important it was for me to start with something completely new. I had already given up on karate because I wasn't at the level I had been before and I would have given up on horses too, if I hadn't started with something so new that I couldn't blame my mistakes on not having feet. I learned that any problems I have now riding astride I had before the accident and that it has nothing to do with my feet, or lack thereof.
I finally asked Kathy if I could bring Black Jack to her place and take lessons with him. When he got off the trailer she nearly had a heart attack he was so wild. He drug me everywhere and wouldn't listen to anybody. She told me there was no way I would ever get him calm enough to ride sidesaddle. After Black Jack nearly flipped over backwards with me on him, I realized I needed help. I was so physically, emotionally, and mentally scattered Black Jack and I couldn't communicate. I needed a new way of doing things.
I found Karen Brown in Bandera at Solitaire Ranch, and she explained natural horsemanship to me. After about a month she showed me what he was learning and told me about a clinic in Seguin with Dave Ellis, a Parelli Natural Horse*Man*Ship Premier Instructor. I was willing to learn whatever it took to get my relationship with Black Jack back.
The first step in that process was accepting the fact that everything I used to know about handling horses just didn't work anymore, just like everything I used to know about getting through life, (walking, interacting with people, driving). I had to let go of any hope of living the same life I used to have. I had to develop a whole new set of habits to get through each day. Through Parelli Natural Horse.Man.Ship, I have learned that to be successful with Black Jack, or any horse, I had to let go of my old beliefs about horse training and be willing and ready to adopt a new system and new habits.
The first thing I learned at the clinic was how to keep Black Jack off of me. I had so much fun that weekend and every time afterward playing with Black Jack that I didn't want to do anything else. I could lead my horse without being pushed around. Playing the seven games made me get into shape without even trying to. As an amputee I burn more than the normal amount of calories just walking, but now I was walking more than I had before and my stamina was getting better.
I walk with a Flex Foot Allurion, it's an energy storing foot that helps with my stamina. It is a great foot for a prosthetic, but given my choice I'd rather have the real thing back. I'm not always walking though, and I haven't always been. I had to spend another six months in a chair a year after my amputation because of bone spurs. Every now and then I've walked too much and stressed out my skin, so I have to spend a day or two resting it. Given a choice of a wheelchair or walking, though, I take walking.
Instead of giving up when Black Jack would pull me off my feet, I learned to read my horse and stop the behavior before it got to that point. Black Jack has really helped me become more emotionally fit where my feet are concerned. He doesn't understand what happened to me, and he doesn't treat me any differently because of it. Before I was playing with Black Jack on a regular basis I couldn't walk much. He made me toughen up and get in shape again. I never thought I would run with prosthesis, but I will when I start running alongside Black Jack. PNH gave me a reason to walk, because they gave me the skills to be able to work with my horse without killing myself and Flex Foot has a variety of feet out there that makes it physically possible for me to do all the things I want to do.
As I learned and applied more of the PNH philosophy, many of the principles used to interact with horses contributed to my mental and emotional fitness in other areas of my life. I didn't even realize this until about 6 months ago when some of my friends pointed it out to me, but since my accident I have started to live fast. I cram more things into a day than most people do in two or three. I suppose it is an unconscious feeling of not knowing when I could find myself back in a hospital or dead. Since studying the PNH program and spending more and more time with my horse I have mellowed considerably. I am now more comfortable remembering to 'Take the time it takes so it takes less time'
PNH has helped me with my future as well. I have wanted to be a veterinarian since I was five years old. At the time of my accident I was rethinking that plan simply because I was 16 and didn't think I wanted to be in school that long. I was a second-degree black belt and thought maybe with a business degree I could eventually own my own studio and teach karate. The decision was made for me after my accident. Karate was a closed path for me now, and being a vet would require more physical ability than I had. I thought Public Relations would be a good path instead. After about a year in school under that major, I still wasn't satisfied or happy. I felt channeled into something I did not originally want to do, because of my disability. Even though I still cannot do a tornado kick, I know now that I am not physically limited to get into vet school and am directing my education towards that goal by majoring in Entrepreneurial Business and adding the Biology pre-requisites for Vet school. I am so excited about Black Jack and my progress with natural horsemanship- (we have passed Level 1 and are studying Level 2) that I want to continue my education in that area as well until I am an endorsed PNH instructor. I am exploring the possibility of competing in the Paralympics in Dressage, and am excited about reaching that goal, but my priorities are to keep my relationship with horses natural, to have fun, and to give back to other people in similar situations as my own, what the people at PNH have given to me. They gave me goals, the means to achieve those goals, and a purpose for my life.
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