Riding the Course: It Started as Just Another November Morning

What do you do when the thing you love most leaves you with six fractured ribs and other serious injuries? Brenda Awad shares her journey to recovery and self-discovery in JN’s newest mini-series. Today, Brenda opens up for the first time about the accident that hospitalized her and left her questioning her place in the equine industry.

My name is Brenda, otherwise known as Bea in most barns, I’m 42 years old and have been riding and working with horses for 36 years. I grew up working in barns to help pay for board and lessons, and have learned from some of the best, and some of the worst, professionals around. I’ve competed in almost all of the English disciplines, ridden western and dipped a toe in driving as well. In my late teens, I was converted to a jumper rider, and that’s where I’ve stayed throughout my adult life.

I’ve always said that as riders we are all going to fall and get hurt, we just have to hope it isn’t too dangerous. I’ve had more than my fair share of accidents happen, but it wasn’t until a serious incident just a few months back that I questioned whether I would ever return to my sport and livelihood again. I haven’t been able to share most of my deepest thoughts with others, but writing has helped me process these things when the words and courage have escaped me. I hope that sharing my journey will help someone else who may be struggling not feel so alone.

Photo courtesy of Brenda Awad

On November 28th I went to the barn to do chores as usual. The night before had been a weird one as a boarder had left a gate open and the lead horse in that field escaped and was found on the road in the wee hours of the morning. He was fine and put in the barn for the evening, but it clearly disrupted the energy within the field. So that morning the routine of this field was slightly off and the second head horse was at the gate and slightly pushy. Like the horses, I recognized the change, but didn’t put a lot of weight in it and carried on catching the three horses that walked up (keep in mind that isn’t out of the norm for me).

Upon entering the barn, the pushy horse started spooking and acting up. I tried to correct his behavior, but instead of calming, he escalated. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see him lunge into the horse next to him. Suddenly I was struck down from behind and knocked down with force I’d never felt before. It was so quick that I had no time to brace or protect myself and landed chin first in the concrete. I was stunned and hurt and knew all three horses were still behind me, now loose. I couldn’t move and heard them scuffling and skidding on the concrete, and then they ran. I knew I couldn’t move in time and one ended up stepping right on my back with his front and hind hooves.

Then just like that, the barn was silent as I lay there on the ground. I could smell burning and realized it was from the steel shoes sparking on concrete. I was awake and quickly tried to remember exactly what parts had been bluntly hurt. I felt like road kill, but I was alert. I knew that my head and neck had been missed, and my spine not struck directly. I could still feel all my parts, so I decided I had to get up.

It was at this point that I thought I would be okay. I gave myself a moment to catch my breath. Maybe I had just gotten the wind knocked out of me. Now understand, I am a lifelong horse person, which means I’m clearly not always sensible. So instead of making a phone call, I tried walking it off like I would a bad fall. I started walking in circles trying desperately to breathe and calm down. I tried to preoccupy myself by looking for the loose horses when a wave of pain and panic overcame me. It was at this moment when I realized I was badly hurt unlike anything I’d experienced before.

In a panic, I called my mom for help. While I was waiting, a terrifying thought a hit me. I realized that I could possibly die, and then my brain went crazy and started dueling. “I’m ready to go! I don’t want to! What about my two kids? They won’t have a mother!”

So I prayed. I prayed a lot. Finally, my mother arrived and called the ambulance. The feeling that I couldn’t breathe wouldn’t subside. I started sweating, and I could feel the sweat going down my forehead and down my neck. Then my body and eyes started getting very heavy and calm. A peace started coming over me and as my eyes started to get starry and close, I just thought how nice it would be to simply go to sleep. The pain was overwhelming, and the desire to sleep overcame me.  My mom begged me to talk to her, so I told myself to fight and open my eyes. I  felt a surge of air fill my lungs as I took my first real breath. I could breathe! At that moment, I knew I was going to live.

The fire department and a flashing ambulance staffed with the best medics I could have asked for arrived shortly after. They quickly assessed me and then rushed me to the hospital. There I was pumped full of pain medication, which alleviated most of my pain, before being wheeled off for a CAT scan. I will never forget how painful being transferred to the table was, every movement resulted in surges of pain going through my body. Back in my ER room, I felt overwhelmed. Between family and the hospital team, there were so many people around me. The ER doctor explained to me that I had severe internal damage and had bled from my liver and spleen. If the bleeding were to start back up, I could die, so I was shuffled up to the ICU for monitoring.

My doctors came in to give me the rundown on all of my injuries, and I was shocked. My jaw was fractured in three places, I needed stitches on my chin, I had suffered six rib fractures and six vertebrae fractures (fortunately all on the wings of the vertebrates). I had grade four liver damage (the highest is grade five), grade three damage to my spleen and kidney and one of my lungs was partially collapsed.

So there I lay in the hospital bed, my life turned upside down, and all I could think of was how this wasn’t how my day was supposed to go. My family and friends surrounded me, and my barn family stepped in immediately to take care of things back at the barn. My nurses were loving and respectful and made sure they were my advocate each and every minute. It was scary feeling powerless, in so much pain and ever so helpless, but I knew I was safe. I knew I was blessed and that this situation could have turned out much worse.

Little did I know that I was about to find out how strong I truly was. I had no idea in this first day, what the actual impact of this accident was really going to make on my life. I was about to learn that this journey was going to touch every part of me, not only physically but mentally as well, that needed healing, and it was going to be more challenging than I could have ever imagined. I never dreamed it might mean questioning my place and purpose within the horse industry. My road to recovery has been unlike anything I’ve ever known. But I’m learning a lot, especially about myself, and I look forward to sharing my journey to recovery with you.

Brenda Awad is a lifelong equestrian whose family owns Couderay Springs Farm Wellness Center in Virginia. She specializes in retraining off the track Thoroughbreds for second careers. After a serious non-riding, horse-related accident, Brenda began writing to help her process the complexity of her accident and remind herself that her love for horses cannot be broken. 

Photo courtesy of Brenda Awad