“The sound was sickening,” says Hess, 25, of South Jersey.
As the flying hind hoof of a Thoroughbred struck hard and fast, making contact with her jaw, the sound it made was like the crack of a baseball bat when it crushes the ball.
But the intrepid equestrian, who’d come through adversity before, including a brain bleed sustained in a rotational fall on a different horse, vowed as she hit the dirt that she would keep on fighting. And she promised herself as the world got gray and fuzzy that one day she and the giant Thoroughbred Air Cruiser would ride to glory, if not even become champions.
Sire: Horse Greeley
Dam: Hitchin, by Dixie Union
Foal date: May 14, 2011“The accident happened in December, and when I got out of the hospital, I remember telling my family that I couldn’t wait to ride him. They all thought I was crazy. But, I knew it was a freak thing, and he didn’t mean to hit me,” she says. “It was my mistake. I got too comfortable while handling him, and let myself get positioned near his hip.”
She explains that as she was leading him out to the arena, she asked him to pick up a jog. The new horse, who’d shipped to her on Dec. 20, soon became jittery in unfamiliar surroundings. As she struggled to bring him back under control, he started to buck; she tried to half-halt; and, she was quickly shuffled to his left hip.
Knocked immediately to the ground by a leg that struck with the snap of a boa constrictor, Hess reached up to feel her face, as blood poured into her hands. She would learn minutes later at the hospital that she’d sustained fractures to her cheekbones, her upper mandibles and her nose.
During the weeks that followed, Hess ate dinner through a straw, as her jaw remained wired shut. And she had a lot of time to think about where she’d gone wrong, and how she would face down her fears.
As her face and jaw healed, she remembered a much worse accident. In 2007, while schooling a young horse over a jump, the animal somersaulted and landed on top of her. Details to this day are sketchy as she sustained a lower brain bleed and amnesia.
“This accident was different. I remembered every detail, and played it over and over in my head like a movie,” Hess says, noting that she knew she needed to write a better ending for herself rather than risk losing her nerve.
So she sat down and drafted a letter of application to the Retired Racehorse Project’s famous Thoroughbred Makeover contest. She entered herself and the 17.3 hand gelding, whom she’d adopted from Parx Racing’s Turning for Home, and soon learned she’d been accepted to compete at about the time the wires were scheduled to be removed from her jaw.
Nervous but excited, Hess says her goal now is to school the big, beautiful Thoroughbred well enough to show off his massive floating trot in a ring filled with competitive OTTBs. And to show how willing, quiet and adaptable has become the Thoroughbred with the “big baroque head” and expressive kind eyes.
“He has become such a gentleman. A couple weeks ago we had torrential rains with high winds and I led him into the paddock. He never spooked. I was on edge because of what had happened, but he was a gem,” she says. And as she eagerly looks forward to riding through her fears and into the Kentucky Horse Park in October to compete her massive Thoroughbred with the uphill build of a Warmblood, she already feels like a champion.
“I’m nervous, but to me, the end reward of riding into that ring will be worth it,” she says. “I am very humbled as I start this process … this is my life, the life I chose.”
And the young rider, who has done her time in the hospital, and made her mistakes, will dust herself off and rise to the challenge, earning if not a championship, a badge of courage in the process.