My Comeback Story
By Rachel Sydney Garfield
I was born into the horse world where my mom, Judy Garfield, was a trainer in Westport, Connecticut at Nimrod Farms owned by Ronnie Munch, and where I learned to ride at the age of three. We later moved to Woodstock, Vermont where my mom got a training position at a small horse farm. My father, Lee Garfield, ran my grandfather’s advertising agency Hirshon-Garfield in New York City, and returned on weekends to be part of our horseshow life.
I competed at the Green Mountain Horse Association (GMHA) in South Woodstock, Vermont (currently run by Denny Emerson) and rode with the Upper Valley Pony Club. My first full horse trial was at the age of eight at the GMHA. I had a promising riding career as an eventer and show jumper.
However, my riding career came to an abrupt halt when I had a serious fall in the cross-country phase of the horse trial, and my horse nearly died. I realized I had put my horse in harm’s way by pushing him too hard that boiling hot day – the horse of my heart, the horse whom I loved and who got me through my childhood. I carried much guilt after that event and retired from a great riding career at 16. Something I regret doing to this day.
To deal with the loss of my riding career, I began focusing on painting (my other passion). I had planned to go to Parson’s school of design in New York City to study art, but instead went to college at Colby-Sawyer in New London, New Hampshire and studied arts management. I also studied art and art history on a gap year in Cannes, France, as well as in Paris.
Time passed and I had two amazing daughters. Charlotte is worldly and artistic, and we share a love of painting. I taught her to paint at the age of three. My youngest daughter, Julia, has a passion for horses, just as I do and just as my mother before me.
Seeing Julia’s passion for horses stirred up my deeply buried feelings of childhood. I could no longer avoid facing the grief associated with the loss of my riding career. And so, my daughter and I started riding together. We both rode the most challenging horses because that was all we had access to ride.
At age 12, Julia was such a strong rider with so much natural talent. I wanted so much to fulfill her biggest dream and buy her a horse that was not a realistic possibility until an opportunity came up to work with a young horse who belonged to the barn owner’s friend. I saw this as my chance to give my daughter her dream and planned to get a stall for the horse in that same barn.
On January 7, 2015, I was riding the young horse on an especially cold day. The ground was frozen and the instant I mounted, the horse bolted and began bucking before I had even gotten my feet into the stirrups. I was thrown into the air and slammed down onto my back on the frozen ground.
I lay staring at the sky, thanking God I was alive, but I knew I was seriously injured. My sweet 12-year old daughter ran to get my phone and catch the horse that had run off. She managed to lovingly place a horse blanket over me and simultaneously direct EMS to the remote North Carolina horse pasture.
It turned out I broke my back – a compression fracture of my thoracic spine (T12), as well as a broken sacrum (S2 and S3), herniated lumbar spine in two places, and an injured right hand requiring surgery.
So much fear and worry about being able to take care of my two daughters. The medical team who supported me was wonderful, helping me stay strong and positive. I was in a full back brace for months and spent hours each week in physical therapy. This may sound cliché, but my healing went much deeper than just the physical body. I healed on all levels when my body broke.
In June 2015, with clearance from my spine doctor at Raleigh Orthopaedic, I got back on the horse and regained some confidence. Nine months after breaking my back, I returned to competition along with my daughter.
I became an exercise rider for a wonderful horse named Vida – a 17’2 powerful grey event horse with a heart of gold. The owner, Carey Adams, was my riding mentor, helped me push past my fears and dust off from my original fall at age 16.
My passion for eventing and combined training was reignited and my love for the sport far outweighed the fear from my fall. I am eternally grateful to Carey for her help. Most importantly she sold us “Primetime” (“Charm”), a lovely bay registered Holsteiner mare, and helped me make Julia’s dream come true.
We have all come so far in three years. During my time out of the saddle when I was in the brace shortly after my fall, I reclaimed my passion for painting and now specialize as an equestrian artist. In addition, I finally did a combined test last year and placed second. My book called “The Price of Fantasy” about being the daughter of an “original Madmen” series advertising agency owner is expected to be published this year.
We have a long way to go to reach our ultimate goals. but we have come so far from where we started. Like me, both of my children put their whole hearts into whatever they do. They were a huge part of my healing process and inspired me to push through the hardest times. My children and friends have been so wonderful through it all and I am very grateful.
Most days, I have zero pain and more energy than anyone I know! I attribute this to my strong faith, wonderful children and belief in miracles. I have come to realize the difference between a disaster and a blessing. It turns out my accident was a blessing in disguise and the catalyst for finally accomplishing my biggest goals and dreams.