By Paige Cerulli
Horses have a naturally therapeutic effect on the lives of people who are lucky enough to work with these animals. From helping us relax after a long day to keeping us inspired and giving us strength that we would never have on our own, horses can make a tremendous difference in our lives.
I should know. After all, it was a horse who pulled me back into hope again after a major car accident. And that same horse helped me cope with a health diagnosis which altered my career just a few years later.
The car accident occurred the summer before my Junior year of college. I was majoring in music performance and English, and was on my way to a performance when a car hydroplaned on a bridge, crossed four lanes and hit my truck head-on. I sustained a traumatic brain injury which went undiagnosed for two weeks. By the time it was discovered, I began to understand the effects that it would have on my life. I suffered from frequent migraines, extreme fatigue, sound and light sensitivity, balance issues, and memory loss. I underwent speech therapy for months and had to relearn how to balance myself as I ran.
Though I was cautioned not to go right back to college, I returned to school that fall. I had to. I was nervous about how the injury would affect my flute playing, and I was right to be – the sound of playing in a symphony was overwhelming, and the bright stage lights felt as if they were attacking me every time I walked onstage.
Luckily, there was a place I could go after classes each day where I could heal in private. Whisper, the Thoroughbred mare I had begun riding the year before, waited for me at the barn and was happy to be groomed or hand grazed or fussed over as I let the stress of school go. Eventually, I began riding her again, tipping the brim of my helmet down to shield my eyes from the afternoon sunlight. Whisper, who was typically a pretty reactive ex-racehorse, calmly walked and trotted around the ring with me as I once again learned how to balance myself. At times I felt like a beginner rider all over again, but Whisper was patient and with time and work, my riding abilities returned.
Paige and Whisper
When I spent time with Whisper, I could feel the stress fall away. The performance the next day that I’d been worrying about so intensely suddenly didn’t matter as much, and instead my focus was on working the knots out of her tail or keeping myself centered over her back. I believe that those hours I spent at the stable with Whisper saved me. They kept me sane, and they kept me driving towards getting better.
Whisper went up for sale a year later. I had never before been able to afford a horse, and knew that buying a horse while still in college was a pretty crazy move. Still, I used what savings I had to buy Whisper and have worked two jobs ever since in order to support us both. The day that Whisper officially became mine? A year to the day of my car accident.
Paige and Whisper
But Whisper’s work wasn’t done yet. I had been planning on attending graduate school for music performance, but suffered from significant pain in my hands and wrists during much of college. I postponed attending graduate school until I could get a diagnosis about what was going on with my body. I found that diagnosis two years after graduating college, and it once again altered my life.
I was diagnosed with nerve damage, tendonitis, and about four other conditions affecting my hands and wrists. I was also diagnosed with fibromyalgia, a condition which is poorly understood and, at least for now, without a cure. It’s difficult to manage and, paired with the issues in my hands and wrists, meant an end to my aspirations of being a professional musician. My body wouldn’t hold up to the intense practice and rehearsal hours required of it.
It was spring – April? – when I finally got that diagnosis. I had to go immediately from the doctor’s appointment to a music rehearsal, during which I felt numb. By the time I got home from rehearsal it was almost 11:00 at night, but still I grabbed a flashlight and headed down the driveway to walk almost two miles down the dirt road I lived off of. I felt like I was breaking apart. When I returned home, my mare met me in the corner of her paddock which bordered the driveway. She was quiet yet aware of my movement as I climbed through the fence and hugged her.
I have since spent many hours sitting with Whisper, wondering why things have turned out the way they did. It’s been almost three years since I received that diagnosis, and I’m not yet at peace with it. But I’m getting there. And on days when I feel the bitterness and pain start to take me over, I make sure I spend some quality time out at the barn with this horse who has helped me heal time and time again.
We, who share our lives with horses, are some of the luckiest people in the world. Horses can heal us, help us, and inspire us. Life can be a wild ride sometimes, but horses can teach us how to love every minute of it.