By Laura Boynton
Motivational phrases like, “get back in the saddle” and “just get back on the horse,” pertain to just about every hard knock life can throw at us. But, becoming unseated doesn’t always imply that your skills aren’t good enough to hold on. It simply suggests that you’ve momentarily lost your balance on a bumpy ride.
In life, there are highs and lows, excitement and disappointment, achievements and setbacks, and new beginnings and heart wrenching goodbyes. These situations can either break us or inspire us as we figure out how to pick up the pieces and move forward. It’s called passion with purpose, and it’s called being an equestrian. Wiping off the dust and tightening the cinch, while we align our footsteps next to a good set of hoofprints, will eventually put us back on top again.
Kim Fullwood of Ellicott City, Maryland, knows this all too well. She was winning AQHA English all-around, Hunter Hack, and Pleasure Driving at national, Congress, and World levels. However, in 2004, Fullwood was broadsided by a drunk driver. The accident crushed the left side of her body, leaving her with severe injuries that forced her out of a hunt saddle. She broke her hip, shoulder blade, three ribs, and received twelve stitches in her head. Fullwood couldn’t ride for two years after she was pulled out of her car by the Jaws of Life. When she was ready to swing her leg over the saddle again, she immediately knew her left hip couldn’t handle the strain of riding in an English saddle. There is no bitterness or judgement in Fullwood’s voice when she talks about her accident. “I’m alive today, and I’m grateful. I felt no fear getting back behind the wheel after I healed from the accident. I learned to drive from my Dad, who was a truck driver, and he taught me to be a confident driver, no matter what. I grew up hauling trailers, driving big trucks, and racing, and my Dad made sure I felt like I could handle anything when I was in the driver’s seat.”
In 2014, Fullwood’s class preference changed to Halter and, under the guidance of Mitch Leonarski, they set out together on a new journey. “I had clear expectations with Mitch, and I told him that, before I spent any money on a Halter horse, I wanted to have fun, and I wanted to be competitive.” Without a doubt, Leonarski understood her terms and worked hard to provide her with the perfect partner and dream horse. Who Dated Who, or “Waltie,” won the Breeders’ Halter Futurity when he was two years old in 2015 and earned a Reserve Championship title in 2016 at the AQHA World Show.
Leonarski and Fullwood have had a successful trainer/client/family relationship for over 25 years that would make most envious. “I wouldn’t be in the show pen again if it weren’t for Leonarski’s honesty and positive direction,” Fullwood laughs. “I love having Waltie with Mitch. I get to the shows, and he’s all perfect and ready. My biggest responsibility is packing Strawberry Twizzlers and long pretzel rods for Waltie. My must-haves are my blingy show clothes, my faithful Border Collie, Maxwell Smart, and I always wear my Dad’s wedding band on my thumb when I show.”
Brooke Granzow had high expectations when she purchased a talented, five year-old mare named Move To Zip, aka “Amelia,” in 2016. She was approaching her last two youth years, and her last AQHYA World Show in 2017, and she wanted it to be her best show season yet. At the Congress, she won a Reserve Championship in Youth Trail. Brooke recalls, “The plan was to get Amelia working more in the all-around as she had serious potential to do it all, but she turned up lame. We had several different vets come out and look at her, and nothing got resolved right away. They would run test after test, and they eventually told us that she had some scar tissue that was blamed for her lameness.”
After careful rehabbing and countless vet checks, Amelia took from November 2016 to May 2017 off. When the time finally came for Brooke to start conditioning Amelia again, she was extremely sore and all riding had to stop once more. “My heart broke again for my mare, and it was one of a few saddest moments of my life when I knew my new show mare was hurting again. My grandma, Susan Knapp, came to my rescue and let me show her mare, Cool Krymsun Lady. I didn’t have a lot of prep time with my grandma’s horse, but we scrambled together to make it all work out okay. My family and I went to the NSBA World Show, and I got a call from my grandma. She told me that she thought it was time to put Amelia down. I was devasted and wanted to rush home to say goodbye. There was nothing I could do at home, so my family and I stayed at the show. After my last class, we went home where I spread her ashes over my grandparent’s farm in Iowa.”
Granzow continued to show Cool Krymsun Lady and took seventh place in Western Pleasure at the AQHA Youth World Show. “Coming to terms with what happened, Amelia taught me that the dreams I had and the goals I set for myself weren’t over. They just changed. I’m so very fortunate to have had the little time I was given with her.”
Alexandria Bryner’s Congress dreams came true in 2018 when she was named a Congress Champion in Junior Trail with a 4 year-old-gelding named Lets Ride. That dream could’ve easily been taken away on November 12, 2006 when her whole world changed. She was less than one mile from her farm, driving to the feed store, when she was hit head on at the top of a hill by a driver passing a dump truck on a two-lane road. The driver was traveling over 120 mph. The driver’s car was severed into three pieces, the driver was ejected, and she was found lying in a field on the opposite side of the road. Bryner’s Jeep was pushed back from the point of impact by over 40 feet and almost immediately caught fire. Bryner remembers trying to climb out of the driver’s side window in a panic. “My elbow had gone through my window and broke it out. Some other drivers had stopped and helped me get completely out of my Jeep. They laid me in the grass until the ambulance came.”
Bryner’s injuries included fractured ribs, a lacerated pancreas and spleen, collapsed lung, fractured right tibia, dislocated left ankle, and a crushed right sub-talar joint in her ankle. She says, “Since my accident, I have undergone eight surgeries over the past 12 years and have ten screws between both of my ankles. After being bedridden and in a wheelchair for four months, due to my right leg having a cast above my knee and my leg in a cast below my knee, I was then on crutches for over six months. I spent the next six months in physical therapy and basically had to learn how to walk again. Every surgery put me out of commission for at least 6-8 weeks, followed by more physical therapy. I couldn’t do much for quite a while and everyday activities were a struggle, let alone having to worry about my horses, barn, and training business.”
Bryner’s most difficult moment was two weeks after her accident. After three surgeries, she felt no pain relief. Her doctors finally decided that fusing both of her ankles would be her best option. She recalls, “I had such a hard time thinking about being 22 years old and a horse trainer without have full function of both my ankles anymore.” Bryner says that although her ankles hurt every day, it’s not the same kind of pain and she has learned how to tolerate it now. She can’t stand for as long as she’d like, and her comfort depends on the type of boots she wears.
Bryner’s show career re-started after her accident with the Winter Circuit in Springfield, Ohio. She says, “I was on crutches for most of it, and I couldn’t even get on a horse alone or walk it to any of the arenas. It was stressful, but I made it work along with my customers, who were appreciative of my efforts. I’d like to thank my parents for helping me during my darkest and most difficult time. They helped me keep my business going while taking care of me. I couldn’t have done it without them.”
There are many life lessons that this physical devastation has taught her. “I have to say I learned a lot from being in this accident. You can never give up. Believe me, I wanted to give up so many times, but I’m glad I didn’t allow myself to go down that path. I’m a happier person. I don’t live in the past, and I forgive and forget. Life is too short to worry about anything but doing what you love and living life to the fullest.”
This head-on collision not only fused her ankles, but it forced her not to let life pass her by. Bryner can clearly see her life’s passion with a courageous heart as she continues to step into the saddle every day.
Clayton Jerrell comes from a strong lineage of horsemen starting with his grandfather, Harold Wayne Hopkins. He was extremely instrumental in his life when it came to showing horses. Hopkins had six AQHA Superior earners and 13 additional performance ROM earners. At the age of 17, with his grandfather’s help, Jerrell purchased a yearling named Zips RV Radical. He recalls, “This was a pivotal moment for me. I knew I wanted to break out colts and be an All-Around exhibitor and trainer. My grandpa lived for Western Pleasure. That was his bread and butter, and he would only come and watch me show in the Western Pleasure classes, nothing else.”
After graduating from high school in 2011, Jerrell was faced with a hard decision. He could go to college or go to Lexington, Kentucky and train with AQHA Champion Bennie Sargent. During that time, his grandfather was diagnosed with adenoid and optic nerve cancer that later spread to his brain. While visiting his grandfather in the hospital, Jerrell asked him what to do. “My grandpa told me that if I wanted to be a trainer, then getting paid to learn from the best is the way to go. So, I went to Lexington,” he says. Every day after work, Jerrell would call his grandpa, who was losing his battle with cancer. “He never wanted to talk about what was going on with him. He only wanted to talk horses. So, we talked horses. He’d give me advice, helped me with any problem I had going on, and he took away any self-doubt and always told me to keep going.” Jerrell drove 4½ hours home every Sunday, his only day off, to visit his grandpa.
In 2013, Harold Hopkins passed away. “It was the saddest time in my life. I would find myself grabbing my cell phone to call him after work and realizing he wasn’t going to answer. I struggled with not being able to hear his voice. Some days, I’d hear his voice in my head telling me to move on and keep going.”
When Jerrell headed to the Level 1 Championship Show in 2016, he decided that he would drive the hour-and-a-half to his Grandpa’s gravesite with his dog, Moe, in tow. “I asked my Grandpa to watch over me and my horse, as this was his first big show as a youngster. I worked hard adding the more versatile All-Around elements with the gelding, and I wanted my Grandpa to be proud. I looked down at Moe’s paw in the grass by his headstone and saw a four-leaf clover in between his toes. I picked it, put it in my truck, and headed back to the showgrounds. I actually fed my horse the good luck clover my grandpa gave me. We ended up fourth in Equitation, fourth in Trail, fourth in Western Riding, Reserve in Horsemanship, and we made the finals in Showmanship.”
Jerrell has since moved to Indiana be with his girlfriend, Carli Pitts, where he runs Jerrell Performance Horses. Jerrell says, “My grandpa used to say, ‘It takes a team,’ and I consider myself very lucky to have such a great team family, now and when I was young. My mother gave up so much to drive me to 4-H, open, and a lot of local AQHA shows over my years.”
Nowadays, Jerrell wears his grandfather’s leather belt to show in every class he enters. “He wore that belt every day with none of his buckles, just the plain old buckle it came with. I also have his show saddle. It was the last custom-made Price Mclaughlin saddle ever made, and it has stamped on the inside fender, ‘Custom made for HWH.’”
Jerrell keeps looking for his grandpa’s four-leaf clovers to keep his show career lucky, but he will always have the proudest luckiest charm in Heaven, as Grandpa roots for him in Western Pleasure.
Being out of the saddle for 16 years was far too long for Lacey Armstrong as she devoted time to college and her career. When the time came to mount up again and head to the show ring, Armstrong found Garth, Sonnesa, and Austin Gooding to train her young gelding, Beyond Machine. Meanwhile, Armstrong had been living with a small lump on the back of her right thigh for years and was told by her doctor to keep an eye on it.
“It was Thanksgiving of 2017, and my brother, Damon, who is a general surgeon, was home for the holidays and told me to make an appointment with my doctor to have an MRI done. Within a week, I had an MRI and was told it was a non-cancerous hemangioma. If I wanted, they could remove it. If I didn’t, that would be fine, too. I choose to remove it. Two weeks later, my pathology report came back, and I was told it was a low-grade fibro myxoid sarcoma, which is a rare soft tissue tumor that has the tendency to spread to the chest. Only 400 people in the world have this type of cancer. The pathology also came back saying not all of the tumor’s margins were removed fully. I was told I would also need a chest CT to rule out that the cancer had spread. I did my research and went for a second opinion at the MD Anderson Houston Cancer Center in Texas. I saw a specialist and was told I needed 25 rounds of radiation and a second surgery that was more invasive. Also, the wound would have to stay open, due to not having enough tissue to close it properly. I had to wait to heal and couldn’t ride during all this time. I flew back to Houston and had another surgery where I had a skin graft to close the hole in my leg. They offered a re-constructive surgery, but I declined so I could ride again sooner,” she says.
Armstrong had to fly back to the Houston Cancer Center every three months for two years to get an MRI and chest scan done. “Now, I just got cleared for every four months. Sometimes, the anxiety I feel can be overwhelming. I have flashbacks when the time comes for me to go back for my re-checks. I feel like I’m reliving it all over and over every few months. But, I saw children hooked up to chemo-carts, living in the hospital. It broke my heart, and I would trade places with them in a second. It really puts things into perspective, and I’m so grateful for this life. The lowest point, for me, was the fear of dying and just wanting to live. It was the loss of control and being at the mercy of the medical results that I still struggle with.”
The Gooding family was a great source of support and strength for Armstrong during this challenging time. She says, “I was having a hard time with the travel time it took me to get to Michigan from Indiana, so I made the tough decision to look for a trainer closer to home. After discussing it with them, Garth actually called Chris and Melissa Jones for me and thought I would fit into their program. This year, Armstrong has been showing her horse in All-Around events and plans on attending the Congress and World Show. “I really want to thank Chris and Melissa for pushing me with All-Around events and for their unwavering support. Also, I have to thank my mom, Susan, for being my rock and inspiration. I thank God every day to continue doing what I love.”
There was hesitation in Armstrong’s voice when she started to tell her story. She didn’t want people to feel sorry for her, to view her differently, and she didn’t want any special treatment. However, the way we view her should change as she showed patience with understanding when she couldn’t be out in the show ring. Many of us would have just complained. She fights daily with courage and grace and finds a way to face her fear every four months waiting for her new results. Armstrong, like the other equestrians were interviewed, deserves to stop the clock and enjoy limitless time with their horses, with countless laps in the show arena that will last a lifetime.Click here to read the complete article