It takes a strong support system to navigate the logistics of being laid off following a riding accident. Erynn Ballard and Ian Roberts, who both suffered major injuries in 2013, share their stories of how they kept their businesses running.

Tough but breakable

Horse people are bred tough, which explains their propensity for riding with casts, broken fingers, and bruised ribs. It often takes a very serious injury to completely sideline a professional rider. Erynn Ballard shattered her scapula, separated her shoulder joint, and broke her collarbone when a horse she was riding in a second-year green hunter class got hung up on the back rail of an oxer.

Six days after the accident, she was booked for surgery with a trauma specialist. “Those six days felt like a lifetime,” she recalls. “I couldn’t stand up, lay down, or do anything on my own. I basically just waited.” After a three-and-a-half-hour surgery that installed two plates and 14 screws, Ballard was told to expect difficulty regaining full range of motion in her shoulder due to significant nerve damage. “My surgeon said it looked like a bomb had gone off. I stayed at home for one day after the surgery and then made my mom take me to the horse show at Palgrave. I just sat in a chair and watched horses go. I survived the first month because I got to go to the horse show every day.”

For Ballard, who has no recollection of ever taking time away from horses, the inactivity and uncertainty was mentally taxing. What she initially expected to be a short recovery was estimated at no less than 12 weeks at her first physio appointment. “My arm had zero mobility and it was partially paralyzed,” she recalls. “The paralysis was the scariest thing that I’ve ever had to go through; I couldn’t do anything from elbow to shoulder. The reality of the severity of the injury almost stopped my heart. When you put it into perspective, that’s my whole summer. I lost rides on horses for clients and a whole season on my own horses. I am very lucky to have had a supportive group of clients that stuck with me.”

Ballard remembers a point where she had become so adept at managing her business without riding that she began to accept the possibility that she may never compete at a high level again. That moment, ten weeks after the accident, her mother decided it was time for her to get back on. “I couldn’t brush or tack up, but they put me on and I was like, “Okay, I really, really, really like riding and I’m not going to give this up.” She began riding sporadically soonafter, finding that the action of the horse and subsequent stretching of the arm was beneficial to recovery. She started riding more seriously at 16 weeks post-surgery and her first competition back was the Royal Winter Fair, her 25th consecutive appearance there.

On June 8th, 2013, eventer Ian Roberts ran into similar bad luck at the Bromont Three-Day Event in 2013, where he, in his words, “missed badly, going very fast” aboard Faolan in the CIC3*. Although the aftermath of a concussion has left his memory spotty as to the details of the accident, he was dragged over the fence and wound up with a pelvis that was fractured in several places. Roberts – who had been airlifted off the Rolex cross-country course in a previous incident – is no stranger to serious injury, and he recalls the logistics of running his business falling into place almost immediately.

The timing of the injury wasn’t ideal for either his competition schedule or the fact that he was due to host an event at the family’s facility, Dreamcrest, at the end of the month. “I don’t recall being that panicked, as in my mind I more or less knew what I needed to delegate. I knew that you are generally given 8-12 weeks’ recovery for bones, and without much physio I got back on in 7 1/2 weeks. I can’t say that it was the wisest choice,’ he said with a laugh, ‘but I don’t necessarily make wise choices all the time.” He was in a wheelchair for three days and then mobile enough to get back to the barn after a week.

Delegate and relegate

Without a solid support staff behind them, no professional would manage the day-to-day tasks of running a barn. “I have the best staff in all of the world,’ says Ballard. ‘My team ran the barn, worked the horses, and took care of the kids. It was a really big team effort. The injury took a toll on everybody and the time and dedication everyone put in was incredible. They were working harder, riding more, and managing more. Without them, it would have fallen apart.” Ballard was back to work the day after the surgery. “It wouldn’t be in my character to sit back and let somebody else control the show,” she says, laughing.

Roberts is in the unique position of having a family who also train and compete at the upper levels of the sport. His son, Waylon, and wife, Kelly Plitz, have competed at Pan American and Olympic Games, respectively. “One of my young horses went up to Waylon, and I give a lot of credit to him because he was stretched thin,” explains Roberts. “I have the right people around me, and that’s very important. You’ve got to have a good team behind you when things are going well – a team good enough that they will still be there when things go badly.” Roberts’ top horse, Faolan, who sustained a minor injury in the fall, was off work for a short period of time; his young horses were kept in work by his staff and students. “The most difficult thing for me to manage was getting in and out of the tractor, which I had to do often while we were preparing for the event. Tractors and crutches: not the easiest things to mix, as you can imagine.”

Plitz is responsible for much of the management side of Dreamcrest, which allowed Roberts to substitute what would normally be his riding time with additional clinics and coaching opportunities. “It was pretty much work as usual, except that it was slower moving jumps up and down. From the business end of it, Kelly runs a lot of that anyhow and I’m much more hands-on with maintenance and tractor stuff. Even with the injury, I had to do things out of necessity, and probably not stuff that the doctors would have recommended.”

Highs and lows

Despite the disappointment and anxiety of a career setback due to injury, Ballard found some positive aspects to the experience. Being forced to stay out of the saddle gave her students the chance to fix things the hard way – on their own. “It was a great opportunity for my students, because I was less involved in their progression from the saddle and spent more time with them on the ground,” she explains. “I became a better trainer, because usually the easiest way for me to fix the problem is to just get on and fix it. I couldn’t get on, so I had to find a way to really explain how to fix the problem.”

One aspect of her hiatus from the show ring with which she couldn’t come to terms was watching other professionals show her horses. “I did make an effort for it to be a learning experience, because a lot of my horses are only ridden by me. We know each other so well that I thought it could be beneficial to let them go around without me protecting them. In the end, it wasn’t that much fun.”

“Realizing how cutthroat this business really is was an eye-opener for me, and that was the hardest part of it all. I have a lot of respect for professionals and clients who did step up and help out with professional courtesy and respect, but I learned that if you are hurt, you are very vulnerable. All that it made me want to do is become a better professional.”

The element of fear that comes after serious injury is a major one to overcome. Ballard, who stresses that she has always ridden in a helmet, now also rides in a CO2 safety vest when competing in the jumper ring or when riding a young or unpredictable horse. “When I’m riding and focused, the fear doesn’t creep in, but if something feels unpredictable, I have a slight panic attack. The vest is a like the comfort measure of a seatbelt at this point. I’m a bit safer now and find ways to eliminate the risk, or control it better.”

Ballard’s injury came at a time when she was beginning to burn out for the first time in a career that began immediately after her high-profile junior years. “I was physically drained, showing more than 20 horses a day, and had never taken a break or looked back since deciding this is what I wanted to do,” she explains. The pressure to stay competitive makes perspective difficult to come by at times. “In this business you never want to turn down a horse, because what if it’s the best? What if that owner wants to buy you a grand prix horse? As a family and as a business we knew I couldn’t go on like this forever, and that it wasn’t productive anymore. This injury was the universe telling me that I needed to take a break and re-focus.”

“Physically, I am better than ever. I changed my diet, and after five months off my body isn’t tired and my eye is sharper. It was a learning experience, and now I am motivated and hungry and better than before.”

Roberts agrees that his forced hiatus has given him a new perspective on success and attitude at the upper levels of the sport. “You never get used to being out of commission, but in all truth I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about stuff like that, because you need to move on and just make the best of the cards you’re dealt.” Roberts has also added a CO2 vest to his aresenal, as well as Freejump safety stirrups to avoid getting hung up again. “I wouldn’t hesitate to say that I’m riding better now than ever and I have the nicest horses I’ve ever had. I’ve put the injury well behind me and I just want to do everything a little better now.”