Aug 31, 2017

The Road to AEC: My Will to Ride Helped Me Walk Again

By Jessica Duffy - USEA Staff
Miranda Akins/Photography In Stride Photo.

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 Land Rover and Nutrena at the Tryon International Equestrian Center in Tryon, N.C., August 30-September 3, 2017.

Jan Hoover and her 10-year-old Thoroughbred/Percheron gelding It’s Now or Never, aka “Aengus,” are competing this weekend at the 2017 USEA American Eventing Championships presented by Land Rover and Nutrena in the Beginner Novice Master Amateur division. Four years ago, though, Hoover fell from a young horse and shattered her L2 vertebra, and the resulting compression to the nerves and spinal cord have left her with a lack of feeling in both her feet and her right leg. “I had a new horse and he was kind of green. It was in a dressage lesson, I just fell badly and landed badly,” recalled Hoover. “I said right away to my trainer, ‘Call the ambulance, this isn’t good.’ The EMTs got there and they said, ‘Oh, it’s just a bad muscle spasm, just stand up and walk over and get on the gurney.’ I used to be a police officer and they make you go through first aid all the time and I knew that was not going to happen!”

Hoover was taken to the local hospital in Cleveland for a CT scan, which revealed the extent of her injuries. The doctor at University Hospitals of Cleveland assumed it would be possible for one of their surgeons or a surgeon at Cleveland Clinic to perform the surgery, but word came back from the surgeons that Hoover would need to be transferred to Metro Hospital for the surgery to repair the damage to her spine. “The minute they said [I needed to go to] Metro it was like time stopped, because you know that going to Metro is serious,” said Hoover. She spent 10 hours in surgery while doctors removed a rib to perform a bone graft and set a titanium spacer, rods, and pins in her back.

Several days in intensive care were followed by weeks in the orthopedic trauma wing where Hoover began her rehabilitation. “They said at one point, ‘We’re going to be able to get you walking again,’” remembered Hoover. “What I didn’t know at the time is that their idea of walking is that you can get from your recliner to the toilet with a walker, not getting up and actually walking. So the whole time I’m like, ‘Hey, come on, we’ve got to get my legs stronger, we’ve got to keep my legs strong so that I can ride.’ The doctors kept saying how they were so amazed that I could just pop up out of the wheelchair on one leg. Well, yeah, I do it every day getting in and out of the saddle!”

“At one point, I asked why there weren’t any machines in the therapy room for building up leg strength, and the therapist said to me, ‘That’s because 95% of the people that are here are never going to use their legs. You’re the lucky one.’ That was a big wake up call.”

“It was probably good that I didn’t know that they didn’t think I was going to be able really walk again,” continued Hoover. “I just went on doing everything to walk. On days when I didn’t have therapy I would be in the wheelchair pulling myself with my legs because I had to keep my legs strong so I could ride again! If I hadn’t wanted so badly to ride, I might never have walked again.”

It was about nine months after the accident that Hoover first sat on a horse again. “Now, we’re talking lead line pony ride on a western pleasure horse,” said Hoover, “and much to the surgeon’s dismay. He didn’t want me on a horse for a year because the bone graft needed to set.”

Photo courtesy of Jan Hoover.

Once she was able to start riding again, Hoover sat on anything and everything she could get her hands on within a two-hour radius in order to get back in the saddle. “I met a guy that had horses that he used to do therapy riding with and so I would go over there once a week and get on one of his horses and just practice posting, and practice not being afraid. My neighbor had western pleasure horses and I’d go down, put an English saddle on, and do 10 minutes of posting, because that was all I could do.”

Hoover’s friend, Noell Sivertsen, still had one of Hoover’s old horses, a mare named Diamond who had become a lesson horse for Sivertsen. That’s who Hoover first competed on again once she had gotten her strength back. “I worked with her all through that winter, and then I took her out and trotted around a couple Starter horse trials [in the spring of 2015]. My goal was to try to move back up to Beginner Novice with her because I knew her so well, I was so comfortable on her, and I knew exactly what she was going to do in any situation.”

Just when Hoover had started to make real progress, Diamond passed away. “It was awful. She got pneumonia on top of cellulitis and she’d been on so many different courses of antibiotics that there was nothing we could do,” said Hoover. “It was like having to go back and starting all over again.”

“We worked extra hard [trying to save her] knowing how much they needed each other,” said Sivertsen. “It hit Jan really hard, it was a back step in her whole recovery.” Hoover didn’t ride much at all for the next several months until she found Aengus.

Miranda Akins/Photography In Stride Photo.

“We kind of cherry-picked him,” said Hoover of Aengus, who she found in March of 2016. “I was looking for a long time because there was such a long laundry list of things. He had to have really smooth gaits. He had to be steady. I knew I was going to do Beginner Novice so he had to be solid at at least Novice level. He had to be trained up with good dressage so if he was getting in the 20s with a professional I could get a 30 out of him. He’s been good for me. He learned to stand next to the mounting block really well! He’s got a little bit of a pony personality, and he can be pushy with his big head and neck. He’s very honest, if you ride him, but he’s not exactly a packer. He makes you work for it a little bit! Last year I had a decent season, but I was terrified half of the time. Last year he was babysitting me but this year his expectations for me are a little higher!”

Hoover and Aengus did two Starter horse trials together before stepping up to Beginner Novice in May of 2016. The pair have racked up a slew of top finishes at the Beginner Novice level over the last year. Just two weeks ago the pair won the Novice Rider division at Genesee Valley Riding & Driving Club Horse Trials on their dressage score of 34, a great final prep run before coming to the AEC. “We’re back, and we’re here, and we’re gonna give it a go,” said Hoover with a smile. “My next goal if everything continues to go well is try and do the Novice Three-Day. That’s next on my bucket list.”

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