She broke her back, but held tight to her dreams

Katie and her beautiful chestnut Thoroughbred Bastion

Katie and her beautiful chestnut Thoroughbred Bastion

A Pennsylvania English teacher who broke her back while dismounting from a horse is fighting back as a Para-equestrian.

Emboldened by personal grit, rewarded for refusing to give up her place in the saddle, Katie Passerotti, 32, of Hermitage has successfully battled her way back from a rare accident in May 2007 that fractured the first lumbar of her vertebrae.

The accident was a total fluke, which marked the beginning of a long, difficult journey that had, at its finish line, an un-raced Thoroughbred who would help crystallize Passerotti’s dreams and passion.

But first, the journey.

On a beautiful May afternoon at a friend’s house, Passerotti was helping to train a green horse. After an unremarkable ride around the arena, and the skilled equestrian was dismounting, something not heard or seen, mysteriously frightened the animal.

As she was in the process of getting out of the saddle, the horse just spooked, bucked, and tossed her like a ragdoll high into the air.

“I came straight down on my head,” she says, noting that she was wearing a helmet, but that the force of the fall snapped her back, just above the small of her back.

Hospitalized for nearly two months and coping with significant physical challenges, Passerotti had to dig deep.  But physical limitations could not restrain her sheer pluck and determination, and with time and effort Passeroti re-learned to walk, even with feeling and muscle control in her left leg diminished.

Back in her own barn, a Thoroughbred she’d purchased two weeks before her accident was waiting.

As she forced her body through physical therapy exercises, she often dreamed of the unraced chestnut Thoroughbred, a three-year-old Thoroughbred named Prince Aloft. She’d met him in a field at a breeding farm six hours from her home. A friend who had met Prince Aloft, who she renamed Bastian, insisted Passerotti drive out and see the horse.

Katie Passerotti has lost some muscular function since breaking her back, but  competes against able-bodied riders

Katie Passerotti has lost some muscular function since breaking her back, but competes against able-bodied riders

So she hitched up her trailer in early May 2007, drove out to the farm, and laid eyes on the pretty chestnut. It was funny.  At the top of the list of what she didn’t want in a horse was the very color he was: chestnut.

“I never liked the color. I always wanted a gray or black. So naturally I go out to find a horse and come home with a chestnut in my trailer!” she says.

What attracted her was his good conformation, he was over 16 hands, and had a wide middle to take up the long legs of a woman who is six feet tall. And his personality was adorable.

“When I walked out to where he was standing, which was near a small creek, he walked right up to me and sniffed me,” she says. “The breeder had to chase him away to get him to trot a little, so I could see how he moved, and then he came right back over to me.

“He has a really sweet face, a kind eye, and I just took a leap of faith.”

Interrupted by her accident for a full year, it wasn’t until May 2008 that Passerotti was finally able to ride her Thoroughbred.

But their time together was brief.

Learning to jump again was a dream come true for the Para-equestrian

Learning to jump again was a dream come true for the Para-equestrian

Despite having been trained as a riding horse by an equine school, and put through additional de-sensitizing exercises to prepare him to carry a rider with less motor control, a bee sting got the better of the pair one day on a trail ride.

Bastian the Thoroughbred spooked, and once again, Passerotti fell, this time breaking her hip.

Another year passed, as she battled back from injury, until finally, in 2009, the pair was reunited.

Oh how good it is now.

Sticking together like Velcro, Passerotti and Bastion nailed their walk, trot and canter exercises in 2009, and began jumping in October the same year.

Lacking the muscle control she once had, balancing became a lot harder, and she is no longer able to hold her legs as still as she once could.

Despite these difficulties, Passerotti and Bastion qualified for the 2010 Region 1 Championship for Dressage, Training Level, placing sixth in the adult/amateur category—beating out many other able-bodied equestrians in their victory!

“We worked so hard for that,” she says, “and the fact that I’m a Para-equestrian, and I was competing against able-bodied riders makes it even more amazing.”

And, last year, even greater reward came when the pair evented at Beginner Novice, without using “gadgets” and other devices routinely used by Para-equestrians, but are disallowed by Eventing regulations.

“The Beginner Novice had super tiny jumps, they were twigs on the ground and objects like that, but it was a big deal for me,” she says.

By Brant Gamma Photos, and courtesy of Katie Passerotti

By Brant Gamma Photos, and courtesy of Katie Passerotti

“When I fell and broke my back, people thought I was crazy to want to ride again. When I started working with my instructor at the time, Kristin Stein, I introduced myself and told her my entire story. And she said, ‘OK. Wow. And you want to do what now?’ ”

Stein gave her no slack in her training. When Passerotti couldn’t keep her leg still, and tried explaining her post-accident physical limitations, her instructor shot back, “I don’t care. You have to figure it out.”

And she did figure it out. She learned how to keep going even when all the cards seemed stacked against her. She shut out the negative comments from those who feared for her, and she rode it out.

“I might not be able to run or jump or even walk well, but with Bastian I could still have a chance of being graceful, with him I could walk, trot, canter and jump,” she says. “He would become the expression of what I was capable of.”

She adds, “I’ve learned to never give up pursuing my dreams, for me each difficulty has only strengthened my resolve to achieve  my goals.”

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7 responses to “She broke her back, but held tight to her dreams”

  1. Chrisie McCorkle

    Katie it is so wonderful to hear about your experience and good you are doing I no longer have horses my husband died June 13th and my son Gregory was in a rollover on I90 October 13 2016 major head injury peg tube , brain shunt talks on occasion With therapy and does not eat but can walk ,Moose went to the neighbors Trish is 32 and is waiting for a kidney and on dialysis,Moose is very gentle with her and her daughter elieot that horse should write a book … Love her and all the people she has saved ???? Chrisie Mae

  2. Sarah Brady Howe

    Way to go Katie! I knew you could do it, so great to read your doing so good old friend!

  3. Jan Vandebos /Springtime Farm

    Such incredible grit and determination..,you are a true athlete,
    who is to be commended. I believe the love you had for Bastion
    helped you through your tragedy. He was your guardian
    angel. You make a beautiful team.!!!!

  4. Wendy Wooley

    Great story! I needed to read it too. I’m not trying to be a total buzz kill but the day before yesterday a friend of a friend was bucked off her horse, broke her neck and died. She was riding at her home and nobody was there. Her husband found her in the arena and her horse loose on the property. So sad and I can’t shake it since I have a busy body horse… But Katie’s message is great and inspiring. I may hop on and give my guy a whirl right now! It’s gorgeous outside!

  5. Cynthia Minchillo

    Way to go Katie and Bastian.

  6. Linda Pavey

    What a completely inspiring story! Katie exemplifies herself as a true equestrienne and Bastian a healer and example of what OTTBs can give back once their racing days are over.

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