Coming back to the tack after an injury is challenging for any rider, but pushing yourself to head back to the start box in a championship setting following a serious concussion and a year out of the saddle definitely adds a whole new level of challenge to the mix. For Grace Montgomery, this is the challenge she had to overcome when loading up her gear and her 9-year-old Irish Sport Horse gelding Fernhill Wonder (Farfelu de Muze x Cherokee Bella m2s) in the trailer to represent her college Auburn University at the 2022 USEA Intercollegiate Eventing Championships.
The former two-star rider is no stranger to the pressure of a high-performance environment. Having competed in eventing since she was 12 and previously represented Area III in the CCIJ2*-L at the 2019 North American Youth Championships (NAYC), Montgomery has been around the sport her fair share. However, as many of us know, no matter how long you have been involved in the sport or how good of a rider you might be, accidents can always happen. While competing at the NAYC was always a dream for Montgomery, that dream didn’t quite end the way she had envisioned.
“That ended with a fall so that wasn’t the best outcome,” shared Montgomery. “It was a dream of mine to be able to go, so even with that fall, it was great to be able to go there. I took a few months off of riding after that because I had fractured a vertebra in my back.”
After getting the all-clear, Montgomery set forth with a new mission, producing her young horse Fernhill Wonder to the two-star level.
“He is pretty silly and can be lazy, but he has a little bit of a wild side sometimes too," Montgomery shared of the chestnut gelding. "He is the same horse everywhere he goes. He has been so easy to produce and he just packs around the cross-country so that makes him super fun.”
The pair experienced their first two-star together at the Virginia Horse Trials International in May of 2021, but an unfortunate dismount off of another horse just shortly after led to Montgomery receiving a concussion of such severity that her doctor and her parents encouraged her to take a step back and enjoy some downtime from riding. It wasn’t an easy decision, the start of the summer meant it was prime time for eventing, but Montgomery knew she needed to let her body heal. While she wasn’t sure if she would ever event again, Montgomery felt the itch to ride creeping back in after the completion of her first semester of college and she knew she could rely on Wonder to help make that dream a reality.
“In December I came home from school and decided that I really wanted to ride again, but I had to talk to my parents first. We all agreed that I could start riding but to put off jumping for a while. So, my horse came home from the trainers and we just flatted for a few months. I was just riding for fun and hacking around. It made me so happy to just be able to ride again and I took it slow and didn’t put any pressure on myself.”
Taking herself out of the competitive environment did wonders for not only Montgomery’s recovery, but also for her mind. The added pressure of a competition can take a toll on a rider and when you are coming back from injury, and Montgomery feels the best thing that you can do is to enjoy the ride.
“I kept reminding myself that this was all for fun and if I got to do a competition again- great. But I was just going to make sure I had fun first,” Montgomery reflected. “Before I was putting so much pressure on myself to perform well. Honestly, I would advise anyone going through a similar situation to just take it slow and make sure you are having a good time. Have fun with your horse and while you should take lessons to improve, you should also ride by yourself and find yourself again in your riding.”
As she continued on in her recovery, Montgomery found a home within the Auburn Eventing Team and pushed herself to participate in a few clinics in the spring of 2022. By this point, a year had passed since her last competition, so when her teammates asked her if she would want to represent their college on an Intercollegiate team at this year’s USEA Intercollegiate Eventing Championships, she had to take a moment to think on it.
“I hadn’t been out in so long,” Montgomery shared. “I talked with my parents again and they said I could go, but we agreed that I would go at Novice level since my horse and I hadn’t done anything in a while.”
For some, coming back to the lower levels after competing at the FEI levels might be challenging, but Montgomery found purpose and reward in the ride.
“Going into the weekend I was a little unimpressed by the thought of going Novice, but then I reminded myself that my horse and I hadn’t been out in so long. I think we both performed so much better and had so much fun without that pressure of riding at the upper levels. You have to ride much more proactively and combat the pressure of the questions at the upper levels, and so being able to remove that added pressure was great for us both. It was really rewarding and a ton of fun.”
In addition to having fun, Montgomery was a part of the winning Auburn team, the Auburn War Eagles, at this year’s Championships - not a bad way to return to the show ring. All in all, Montgomery is still up in the air as to what the future might hold for her and Wonder. She aims to enjoy some show jumping competitions with her beloved partner and might represent Auburn again in the future, but for now, she has one goal in mind: to be grateful and enjoy every ride.
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