By: Brittany Bevis
“The accident was on October 18, 2011. I was driving home from student teaching, when a high schooler, who was distracted while driving, crossed the center line and hit me head on. The dashboard of my truck collapsed on my lap, which ended up saving my life because it cut off my circulation and stopped the blood flow. It took the firefighters 45 minutes to cut me out. If it hadn’t have been raining, they would have life-flighted me.”
For someone who just learned how to do showmanship two months ago, Stephanie Hood’s Reserve World Championship finish in Novice Showmanship at the 2013 Appaloosa World Show is an incredible accomplishment. But when you consider the journey that led her to the completion of that goal, from a devastating car accident two years ago, this recent achievement seems all but unimaginable.
Following a horrible car accident in October of 2011, Hood, a longtime equestrian, was faced with the unfortunate reality that both of her legs were crushed and that amputation might be necessary. She endured two knee surgeries, during which doctors had to remove her left knee cap and reattach tendons to her quad muscle and lower leg. Her left ankle was fractured, and her right ankle was completely destroyed. The latter had to be entirely rebuilt with a rod, two metal plates, and 12 screws. The extent of her injuries was compounded by the fact that she sustained head trauma and memory loss.
“I was in the hospital for three weeks before they could repair my right ankle due to extensive swelling and trauma,” Hood says. “When I first woke up in the emergency room, after the accident, the surgeon told me they would possibly have to amputate my right foot. With that in mind, just having a foot kept me going through the recovery. My amazing surgeon was Dr. Bruce Ziran at Atlanta Medical Center.”
“When I was finally released from the hospital, I lived in a hospital bed in my parents’ dining room for six months. I couldn’t move either leg, and, if I wanted to get up, I had to transfer to a wheelchair.”
The next step, following extensive surgery, was to find a physical therapist that could held Hood accomplish her short-term goal of walking without assistance and her long-term goal of getting back in the saddle. She found the supportive atmosphere she sought at Sovereign Rehabilitation in Conyers, GA.
“I spent a year in physical therapy re-learning to walk, and it was excruciating,” Hood says. “The only thing that got me through was that I wanted to ride again. When I first started, my knee wouldn’t bend at all. When I left, I had about 95 degrees range of motion- enough to sit almost normally. I could walk again, but with a limp, and all I really cared about was riding again.”
Today, Hood’s balance is still impaired and she can’t get up off the floor. She experiences daily pain and swelling, and making it up stairs is extremely difficult. Due to the extent of her injuries, her ankles had to be fused, which makes keeping her heels down and using spurs correctly all but impossible. In a few years, she will need a knee replacement and must have knee surgeries throughout the rest of her life.
When the pain had lessened and she could walk with a cane, Hood sought help from Honey Creek Youth Ranch, a therapeutic riding center where she had volunteered in the past. Her first time back in the saddle was aboard one of their therapy horses that she mounted with the assistance of a ramp. During that first ride, she was able to walk and trot. This fueled her desire to find a quiet horse and get back in the show pen as soon as possible.
“The Meneely’s were only about five minutes down the road from my parents’ house,” she says. “I asked for help in finding something I could show and really just enjoy riding. Rob [Meneely] and Dawn [Lovern] were so wonderful and patient with all my crazy questions. We eventually decided I should just come to Worlds in 2012 and try out some horses. At this point, I had moved from using a walker to a cane, but I still got tired very easily.”
“We discovered that Nettie Olsen and Jessica Olsen Groome’s western pleasure mare was for sale. The moment I saw her, I knew she was the one!”
“The one” turned out to be a seven-year-old Appaloosa mare named Sheza Fancy Impulse, aka Cassie or Cassandra, “if she’s in princess mode,” Hood says. Cassie is a multiple World and National Champion and Reserve Champion by Too Sleepy To Zip and out of Zips Impulsion. Although Hood describes the mare as a definite “diva,” she will patiently wait for her rider to climb aboard with the help of a chair. Because Hood’s left quad muscle will always be weak, she must mount from a fence or by using a chair or stepladder.
Hood began her riding career by competing in 4-H and open shows. Her parents made a lot of sacrifices so that she could take lessons at a small, local barn. “We kind of did everything the hard way, and I learned a lot by doing everything wrong,” she says. However, her dream was to one day compete at the breed circuit level and eventually at a World Championship Show.
“Until I got Cassie, I had never ridden western pleasure or ridden a horse [with a spur stop],” Hood says. “She encouraged me to work to build up my leg strength. Rob and Dawn were both awesome at teaching Cassie some new cues so I could ride her with my weaker legs and lack of ankle mobility. [They get me] through frustrating times when I feel like I can’t do something as well as I used to. We’re still getting used to each other, but I’m starting to finally figure out what I’m supposed to do!”
Hood has always loved pattern classes, and showmanship is one of her particular favorites. After the injury, she became very nervous about competing in riding classes, but she felt like showmanship was an event that was more under her control- she just had to re-learn to run.
“I started out the year competing in halter, because I could walk and have her jog beside me,” Hood says. “We actually did really well and earned a ROM in Open Aged Mares. We are still in the Top 10 in the nation in the class.”
“Two months ago, I decided I wanted to go ahead and try showmanship. Rob and Dawn encouraged me to get out and try it. I figured the worst that could happen was I wouldn’t place or I’d trip and fall and someone would have to come pick me up! I got my walker out and started by trying to jog around the flat parts of my neighborhood. I also practiced running in the indoor arena. I immediately noticed that if the ground was smooth and dragged recently I could make it work! I also started seeing a chiropractor, Dr. Jim Lindell, which has helped so much. I don’t feel as uneven as I did before.”
Because running was still difficult, Hood focused on setting her horse up for inspection, a maneuver she practiced nearly 100 times a day. She also worked on perfecting her stops and pivots. She was only able to practice running in the most ideal ground conditions.
“When we got to Worlds, I was never able to practice running because the ground was so torn up from everyone riding,” she says. “Going into the class, my goal was to not fall on my face, something I had almost done the day before, and to just sell it despite my limp. There was a lot of jogging in the pattern, and the ground was deep during the arc. I remember feeling like I was going to hyperventilate, and I was so nervous my knee was going to give out. I was so surprised when my number was called out! I was sure they had made a mistake, but it kept happening.”
“Looking at the trophy, I still can’t believe it. I dreamed that one day I would walk out with a trophy, but I never expected it to be my first year in a class where I had to walk, let alone run! I couldn’t even run two months ago, and I’ve only been walking again for a little over a year now. Competing in showmanship means more than just getting through the accident. I feel like I conquered the class despite my legs!”
Hood and Cassie currently compete under the guidance of Rob and Mary Meneely and Dawn Lovern. She credits the barn’s supportive and encouraging atmosphere with helping to get her through some tough times. With their help, she competes in novice non-pro western pleasure, horsemanship, and showmanship. She is looking forward to adding western riding and trail in the not-so-distant future.
“I love showing on the Appaloosa circuit,” she says. “As a novice, I was intimidated about showing with people I had read about in magazines or seen on live streams of shows, but everyone has been extremely friendly and helpful. I’ve really enjoyed getting to know everyone. There are so many others with inspiring stories like mine. [Having] everyone cheer each other on is wonderful. To top off the best first World Show experience, I was also honored to receive the Non-Pro Sportsmanship Award for 2013. It was a complete surprise and made me cry when they announced it!”
Although Hood’s story has a happy ending, she knows this is not always the case with car accident survivors. Therefore, she has a few closing remarks she’d like to make.
“I just want people to think twice before picking up their phones or anything else while driving,” she says. “The kid that hit me walked away with just a hairline fracture in one ankle. The firefighters told me if I had been in anything smaller than my Dodge Ram 1500 I wouldn’t have survived. That’s changed my perspective on many things and has really encouraged me to achieve some of my dreams now.”
“Your life can change in a split second, even if you do nothing wrong. I thank the Lord that my story has the ending it does. I’m so lucky that I have the opportunity to show my dream horse, compete under the guidance of a wonderful barn, and ride with so many inspiring people.”