The Road to AEC is a series of articles contributed by our members about their journeys to compete in the USEA American Eventing Championships (AEC) presented by Nutrena at the Tryon International Equestrian Center in Tryon, N.C., August 30-September 3, 2017.
On June 27, 2016, Officer Jessika Kynett of Livingston, Montana, headed out for a trail ride with her two boxers and her police horse, a nine-year-old Warmblood cross gelding named Tankers, not knowing that the ride would change her life. She can recall every moment of the ride up until she was thrown from Tankers and knocked unconscious. Best she can figure, the accident was caused when Tankers tripped walking down a rocky embankment. A hiker found her an hour later, with her two dogs lying beside her and Tankers standing close by. She was airlifted to a nearby hospital in Billings where she woke up two days later, having suffered a traumatic brain injury.
Kynett has spent her whole life around horses. She grew up riding Western, but switched to English when she was 13. “That’s when I started wearing my helmet,” recalled Kynett. She rode hunter/jumpers and did some fox hunting outside of Memphis, Tennessee, before making the switch to eventing a few years later. “I remember meeting Kerry Milliken at Rolex [in 1998, the first year they offered the CCI4*], and telling her, ‘In ten years, I’m going to be here.’ Of course, that didn’t happen, because life happened,” she said.
Jessika riding in a Michael Plumb clinic as a teenager. Photo courtesy of Jessika Kynett.
From the age of 16, Kynett knew she wanted to be a police officer. She remembers thinking, “This is what I want to do. I want to help people.” She started working as a 911 dispatcher while attending college at the University of Memphis, and in 2003 got an offer to move to Montana to be a dispatcher with the Highway Patrol. She completed school at Montana State University, and in 2008 was sworn in as an officer with the Livingston Police Department.
Riding had been taking a backseat to Kynett’s career for several years when she began to look for a horse to start eventing with again. She purchased a Quarter Horse named Montana Pie, or “Larry,” with whom she started the Livingston Police Department’s mounted unit. Larry, it transpired, was not suited for police work, and Kynett planned to instead use him as her event horse. She knew she needed to find a replacement for Larry in the mounted unit, and that’s when she discovered Tankers.
Just 7 years old when Kynett came across his ad in a Facebook group in Feburary of 2015, Tankers had been used as a hunting horse, which meant he would go up in to the back country of Montana and carry back whatever game the hunters caught. Kynett knew he was perfect for the job, and Tankers became her new partner in the mounted unit.
Tankers as a hunting horse in the back country of Montana. Photo courtesy of Jessika Kynett.
Kynett and Tankers were enjoying her day off together when the accident occurred. “My helmet saved my life” said Kynett definitively. “If I had not had my helmet, I would have died.” The extent of her injuries caused her to spend the next week in the hospital. “One of the first things I realized when I woke up was that my right eye was off a little bit,” she recalled, “and it never got better.” The partial double vision that Kynett was experiencing was caused by fourth nerve palsy. The trauma to her brain had damaged her fourth cranial nerve, causing paralysis to superior oblique muscle, which controls eye function. The damage could be repaired by surgery, but Kynett would have to wait six months to see if the palsy would resolve on its own before a surgeon would operate.
Because the accident occurred while Kynett and Tankers were off-duty and her double vision made her unable to continue her work as a patrol officer until the condition was treated, her position with the Livingston Police Department was not secure. She ultimately made the decision to resign in October of 2016. While she was financially unable to keep Larry and gave him to a close friend, she held on to Tankers.
“I was upset [with myself],” admitted Kynett about the struggle to accept her limitations following the accident. “It’s one thing to be patient with other people, and that’s what my job was as an officer, being patient with people and listening. But when you have to be patient with yourself and your body, it’s a completely different experience. It was a humbling one, and it still is. Me and my body argued quite often, and that went on for a few months, and I hit several brick walls, because my body kept telling me, ‘No, you have to wait.’ I had to recognize that I was still recovering.”
Jessika and Tankers on the mounted unit for the Livingston Police Department. Photo courtesy of Jessika Kynett.
Kynett remembers watching the Olympic Games in Rio de Janiero while on her treadmill in the weeks following the accident and feeling motivated and inspired by the riders, especially William Fox-Pitt. “I remember thinking, ‘If he can go to the Olympics [after being in a coma], if he can do this, I can do this.’ It was inspiring, it was a pivotal moment for me . . . I was not going to let this beat me.”
About three weeks after the accident and the initial symptoms of the concussion had subsided, Kynett was determined to get back on, whatever it took. “What was really hard was that I [had been] so independent, and I then became so co-dependent. Bless [my husband] for still being there, even though I drove him nuts. He knew that I was going to ride regardless of whether he was there or not. When I got back on Tank, he just knew. I cannot explain it. But I only rode for 20 minutes at the walk because that was the only energy that I had . . . Ultimately it took me about six months to be able to ride longer than an hour.” They progressed, slowly but surely, adding a few minutes at a time, and then gradually trotting and cantering as she got stronger. “I hate to call it the reason, because it’s not [Tank’s] fault, horses trip all the time, but as much as he was a part of my brain injury, he was part of my recovery.”
In February of 2017, Kynett’s double vision had still not corrected itself, and she was approved for and received surgery to correct the fourth nerve palsy. With her vision back to normal, she was excited to finally be able to jump again for the first time since before the accident almost eight months prior. She had jumped Tankers before the accident and he was “totally cool about it,” so she was delighted to find that he still had the same enthusiasm over fences so many months later.
“I decided that I was going to go ahead and compete him, just for fun,” said Kynett. “We got second at Spokane Sport Horse Farm Horse Trials in May. We did Intro because it was his first event and Spokane is a big event, and he placed second out of 17 or 18 horses and riders. I couldn’t believe it. We got a 28 on our dressage score which just blew me out of the water. We ended up bumping up to Beginner Novice [after that], and the rest is kind of history. He’s just an incredible horse, I don’t know how I got so lucky.”
Jessika and Tankers competing together at a USEA Recognized competition. Photo courtesy of Jessika Kynett.
Kynett has been given the green light to get back into law enforcement now that she’s recovered from her injuries, and even has an opportunity in the works that involves Tankers. “It is my hope that we'll both be sworn as officers again before we head to Tryon,” she said. But knowing the demands of a job in law enforcement, she’s unsure when she’ll have the opportunity to compete at the AEC again.
“If I had told my 14-year-old self, ‘You’re going to go to the American Eventing Championships, but it’s going to be at Beginner Novice,’ my 14-year-old self would laugh, because it’s Beginner Novice. It’s not what I used to do back home [when I was a kid]. But it’s not about the level. It’s about this past year, this journey, and I can feel it in my heart that it’s the right thing to do, to go to complete this journey that we’ve both been on since it happened . . . I’m going to Championships, and it may not be [at the Advanced level], but I’m going and it feels like the Olympics, at least to us.”