Nov 28, 2020

Now on Course: Amber Luce Comes Back from the Brink

Courtney Drake Photo courtesy of Amber Luce.

Life’s journeys will never be about the race that pushes you to greatness. They will always be about the steps that get you there and the steps you take, even when times are hard.

Helping horses and their humans is my passion – I own and operate a 40-stall barn in Washington state with a very large beginner-friendly school program with three instructors, 15 school horses, and five horses of my own. In 2017, I became an active member of the USEA, and in 2018 I qualified for Area Championships at Training level aboard my horse Theodore aka "Teddi" and completed three Beginner Novice events on my other horse, Holy Smoke aka "Charlie."

In 2019, a snowboarding accident put me in a wheelchair. I sustained injuries consisting of two blown ACLs, two fractured tibial plateaus, two dislocated feet with multiple bone fractures within the feet, and damage to many of the joints within the foot. I had several pins and plates put into my feet, my ACLs were sewn back together, and my tibias were reattached to the plateaus. I was in casts nearly the entire length of my legs and I could hardly move.

Amber in the hospital following her surgeries. Photo courtesy of Amber Luce.

After my accident in 2019, I lost half of my barn; each client left for their own reasons, but they all left within just a few weeks to a few months of my accident. Every trainer horse world knows we give our hearts and souls to our clients, but some clients come and go while some stay loyal to a fault. The injuries I sustained were very severe, with 14 hours in surgery just to repair my feet. It was unknown whether or not I would be in a wheelchair for the rest of my life. I can understand why many of my boarders, clients, and employees decided it was time to go.

I am still regaining my ability to walk. Some days I really struggle and have a lot of pain, some days I feel good and think maybe I can run or walk fast again, maybe even clean stalls and carry grain bags, but the good days are far and few. I stay strong mentally and battle any negative thoughts. I do my best to ride my young horses, keep my clients' horses going, teach lessons, and slowly repair the rips and tears of 2019.

And 2020 has not been a very forgiving year, with lessons canceled due to COVID-19 and show season nearly non-existent. I’m fortunate for the half of the barn that stayed during my downtime, the clients who waited patiently for me to heal and start back into their weekly riding lessons. The clients who purchased horses of their own so they could continue on a greater horse adventure. The friends who helped me recover. The incredible people including my assistant instructor and barn manager, working student, best friends, farriers, and my parents, all steamrolling ahead to take on all of the barn tasks and help keep things afloat while I was unable to walk in 2019. Facing 2020, another uphill battle, my team of support and I still have yet to give up. Despite the huge physical setbacks, and only one year out of a wheelchair, I press forward. This September, Theodore and I were able to drop back into the eventing world.

To say Theodore and I are a team is an understatement. Theodore is a very picky Trakehner gelding who is a bit quirky. In 2015, he was a gift of a lifetime. Theodore was diagnosed with kissing spines that should have retired him in 2013. In 2015, his owner and a few friends of mine helped make him my own. I took him in and continued to get him healthy. After lots of time building his back muscle and slowly developing him a bit differently, we made our way as a team into the event world.

After a fabulous 2018 show season, Teddi had a bone chip removed and was on the mend in 2019 just as I was. At the start of Teddi’s rehab, I had tremendous help from a friend who boards at my barn. After months of her hand walking him, Teddi was given the go-ahead from our vet to start back in the tack. I was also given permission to try standing and start walking if I could. It has been a long slow road just to get this far.

Amber riding Teddi bareback. Photo courtesy of Amber Luce.

Teddi and I took lessons with a long-standing mentor of mine, Caryn Bujnowski, who helped build our confidence back. I would haul in for lessons, bareback, as I couldn’t yet get my foot in a riding boot, let alone a stirrup. She helped me overcome my fear of just riding. My body had taken over my mind. Where I never used to have fear, all of a sudden fear was there. I would shake just sitting on a horse.

Later I learned that my fear stemmed from my lack of ability to dismount. Still to this day I need to use a block or help to guide myself off the back of a horse. Even through the endless shaking and fear, Teddi and I moved onward. We attended a dressage clinic, trail rode, occasionally jumped over a few fences. It wasn’t until the end of the spring of 2020 that I started asking more from both of us.

In April of this year, I was able to put weight in the stirrups and had enough mobility in my feet to try jumping. At the end of May, we went cross-country schooling for the first time back since the Championships in 2018. It was terrifying and wonderful. Teddi is a very looky, spooky horse and he has always received confidence and reassurance from me over the fences. With my accident and still having a touch of fear, I needed him to help me out.

Courtney Drake Photo courtesy of Amber Luce.

Over the next three months leading up to our first event back, Teddi had a LOT of refusals. They were my fault mostly, for not having the confidence he needed from me as his partner, and I was still figuring out how to use these silly legs of mine that have severe nerve damage and lack of strength. By August, Teddi’s confidence was coming back and his stride was opening up. I was feeling more secure in the tack and knew there were hopes of running at an event once again.

Teddi and I were able to build back our strength together. This horse gives me his heart, body, and mind. When we would finish our rides each and every time he would hold his neck tight for me and slowly lower me to the ground so I could dismount. As I would sit down holding the reins he always puts his head in my chest or lap and waits for his kiss and scratch. He’s one-of-a-kind and he’s my buddy.

In the fall of 2020 an event here in Washington opened up - the Caber Farm Horse Trials. I signed up for Training level and I asked a few close friends to help as my support crew for our first event back.

I’m still struggling with walking and I wasn’t sure how my feet or knees were going to hold up around the cross-country course. I asked my support crew to be strategically placed in case I needed to retire on course. If I needed help getting off or if something went wrong their assistance would be helpful since they knew my injuries and knew of my situation.

Heading into warm-up, Theodore came to life. I could feel him take on a different shape and he knew all the things we had done in the months prior finally made sense. He was back out ready to give his very best in all of his efforts. At the start box he was jigging and extremely excited, the count down began and we left the start gate.

Courtney Drake Photo courtesy of Amber Luce.

His gallop was fast, his balance was quick, and his jump was powerful. Fence number 4AB was an up bank to a down bank, four strides to a roll top. This is where I knew I would be tested - the joints in my feet don’t flex well and my knees move differently now. I wasn’t sure if I would be able to land off the combo and secure my leg to fence 5. Teddi was on fire, coming into 5 he and I had a little scramble and I slipped onto his neck. I could feel him hold his neck tight like he used to for me, and for that I was able to get back in the tack.

The rest of the course was brilliant. Teddi was so incredibly happy to be back out galloping and jumping. I was just happy to be able to ride. We crossed the finish line one second over on time. I hadn’t tracked the time on my watch – I didn’t need to know the time. I wanted to be out there with my buddy enjoying the sport, loving the life I get to live, enjoying the recovery he and I made together.

There are ups and downs all around each of our lives. There are moments of greatness, times that life challenges our weaknesses, and one of the gifts about life is that we never have to give up. Each person can push forward, there will always be something that makes things feel like they can’t go on, but it just takes a small step at a time in the right direction to eventually get where you really want to go.

The USEA is made up of over 12,000 members, each with their own special horses and experiences. The USEA's Now on Course series highlights the many unique stories of our membership. Do you and your horse have a tale to tell? Do you know someone who deserves recognition? Submit your story to Jessica Duffy at [email protected] to be featured.

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