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.
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.
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.
“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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