Life in the pain lane

Whangarei Base Hospital accident and emergency department, sometime before midnight, Sunday, November 24, 2014.

Life pivots around events that take place in seconds. Split seconds. A chance meeting, a lottery win, an accident. Events that take us and hang us upside down and shake us until the change falls from our pockets and our brains turn dizzy, and our sense of who we are and what we are is so thoroughly turned out and dusted that we can never be the same again.

In New Zealand, a quarter of us are disabled. According to official figures, in 2013 (the year in which I had an accident), more than one million New Zealanders were coping (or not coping) with some form of long-term disability. That’s a lot, when you consider there are barely 4.5 million of us in this country.

As you’d expect, impairment is most common in the elderly (59 per cent of those aged 65 or more). But don’t think that we middle-aged folk get off lightly; 38 per cent of those of us aged between 45 and 64 have some form of long-term impairment (lasting more than six months and affecting our ability to function). And disabilities affect 16 per cent of young adults (15 to 45) and 11 per cent of children.

The numbers are scary. One in every four people you meet is dealing with something. If you go into a school, every 10th child – that’s three out of a classroom of 30 – has to overcome some sort of hurdle (in the young, hearing, learning and psychological issues are the most common form of impairment) before they even start the day’s lessons.

Disabilities come in all shapes and sizes. Hearing loss, blindness, developmental delays, psychological impairment, memory loss and intellectual impairment are all common disabilities. But among adults, at least, it’s physical impairment, caused by accidents or illnesses, that is the biggest problem.

Less money in the bank

What surprises me is that I’m one of those statistics. If you’ve been fit and healthy most of your life, you don’t expect to suddenly not be. You know you’ll slow down as you get older, your eyesight will fail and your muscles will wither, and you’ll probably need people to help you with some things, but you don’t expect to lose your fitness – your physicalness – in an instant.

The event that changed my life was a horse-riding accident, an occurrence so small in detail that sometimes it’s hard to trace the line that runs directly from there to here.

Admittedly, the accident came at the end of a tough year, and just a few weeks after I’d been made redundant from a job I loved, so I’d already drawn pretty heavily on the emotional, physical and financial capital I had in the bank.

Nevertheless, I expected to get through an accident in much the same way as I got through everything else, by hanging in and working hard. I didn’t imagine that a seemingly inconsequential decision, followed by a split-second occurrence, would spark a chain reaction that would turn the world upside down.

Unplanned and unwelcome

Neither did I realise that I was about to become a person I would despise – dependent, whiney, incapable and weak, who would make dreadfully bad decisions and fail at some critical moments.

Moving from the world of the “able” to the “dis-abled” (interesting that the “dis” form of the word always takes the past tense) was unplanned, unwelcome and unnerving. Part of me sought to divorce itself from the process and watch it objectively, so that I could write about it, because writing about issues, but also experiences, is what people of my ilk (journalists) do. But to my surprise, I couldn’t do it. I wasn’t up to it. The ball of energy I had rolled through life on had been kicked into touch by my beloved horse’s stumbling legs, and I no longer had what it took to do what for me is the simplest thing on Earth – write.

Obviously, this had implications for my working life, and therefore my family’s income. For nearly two years I tried to push myself into working, because the ramifications of not working were too awful. And besides, it’s what people – including insurers – expected me to do. But it wasn’t until I stopped trying and gave myself the time and space I needed to get better that I started to make progress.

New Zealand is blessed to have a publicly funded health system (albeit a creaking one) providing free care for its citizens. We also have a full-cover, no-faults, national accident insurance scheme, called ACC. But the fact that, as a society, we show enlightenment about healthcare and insurance doesn’t mean that we don’t also have an attitude about “bludgers”. That is, in fact, what has finally made me set fingertips to keyboard; a few days ago I saw a bitter little post in a Facebook group about a person who was on “disability” (the poster probably meant getting ACC payments because he was unable to work because of a disability) but that didn’t stop him painting the house or going out.

We’re put here to work

It was heartening to see some people gently rebuke the poster for jumping to conclusions, or for taking the attitude that if you are unable to work, you shouldn’t do anything at all, but the majority of the comments took a hard line. Rehabilitation is not an instant process but a continuum; you aren’t disabled one day and at full strength the next. Our bodies take time to repair and then to build up strength again, and getting active around the house and going out is an essential part of that.

I know this from hard experience, and yet curiously, as I wrote these words I began to feel anxious about what people would think, because the work ethic is such a part of our culture that to be seen to lack it or doubt it is to put yourself outside the culture.

What I needed when I was injured was to be told that everyone is different and that the road to recovery is long and full of pitfalls. I also needed to know what practical issues I would face.

When I left the hospital, I asked for a brochure on what to expect. The staff told me there wasn’t one. This, then, is my attempt at a brochure, a user’s guide to having a broken leg, as it were. As I have time (I am now back at work full-time, so there was a happy ending), I will write posts about what I experienced and what I learned in case it’s of help to anyone else.

Please also feel free to ask questions or share your experiences.

This is what happened…


‘This time he bolted, stomping on my leg with his right hind hoof in the process’

Adelia Hallett’s story of life in the pain lane with a smashed leg

Sunday, November 24, 2013.  It was one of those weekends where you don’t seem to get through all the things you’d planned to do. I really wanted to ride my horse; A: because I love riding him, and B: because I was going away on a trek the following weekend and didn’t want him – or me – to be too unfit.

But by late on Sunday afternoon I still hadn’t done it. So I made a choice: rather than a hurried ride now, I would go after dinner so that I could relax and enjoy it without feeling I had to hurry home. It’s possible that that decision contributed to me winding up in a hospital bed – horses are spookier in the evening when the shadows are long and when instinct is telling them that predators are out to feed.

But that was still ahead of me. My horses graze in a paddock about 10 minutes from our house. A friend lived in a house next to the paddock. I popped in to see if she was coming, but she was watching a movie. Kaycee, my 16-hand Standardbred gelding, was my horse of choice that day, and my friend had left him in the yards for me. He bob-bobbed at me when he saw me, assuming he was getting food, but instead I tacked him up and we set off.

It was a great ride, one of those truly memorable days that sticks in your mind because of the way you felt. I came to riding late – in my early forties – after quietly hankering after a horse since childhood, and I still marvel at the fact that I’m really doing it. I am also eternally grateful that I live in a place where it is possible for someone without money to indulge in an occupation which in most parts of the world belongs to a privileged few.

A painting in pink and blue

For years, I’d ridden on the farm neighboring my horse paddock. It’s a couple of hundred acres of rolling country, some of it steep, and Kaycee and I knew it well. That evening it was more beautiful than usual. It was late spring/early summer, and the light was fat and golden. There’s a spot on the farm, after you’ve come round the house, down the hill, through the boggy bit, up the other side, through the wooden gate that’s always hard to open, where you crest a hill and you’re looking out over the harbour. This part of the Kaipara is full of mangroves and salt-marshes, and on that evening they were painted pink and blue in the late sunlight.

Kaycee and I stopped as we always did and looked over the world, then I nudged him left and we headed into the farm. Something I have come to realise is that you can’t ride a horse without connecting with him or her. Riding a living creature is not like riding an inanimate piece of machinery like a bike or a motorbike.

Horses allow us to sit on their backs. They choose whether to do as we ask. I have a long way to go in developing finesse in my riding skills, but I’ve got as far as realising you don’t turn them left or right by pulling on the reins like a steering wheel, or make them go forward by kicking their sides like an accelerator. You ask. Nicely, and occasionally, firmly if you need to. The more you and a horse work together, the better you get at it knowing what the other wants or needs.

Kaycee, or Waikaycee, to give him his professional name, is a retired race horse, a Standardbred pacer who was on the track until he was nine. He had some limited success, but his driver told me that he seemed to think it was rude to pass other horses. He enjoyed racing, she said, but didn’t have the killer instinct that makes a great race horse. He came to me by a circular route, as horses do. After he left the track, his owner – a country woman who had bred him and loved him – gave him to a woman “up north” as a hack. She, however, had been daunted by him, and he’d gone to a trekking operation which got caught up in a scandal over malnourishment of the horses. I met him the following year, when he was living with a friend who had adopted him and nursed him back to health. Because he was grazing in the same paddock as our horses (my son was riding in those days), I saw him nearly every day and we became friends. When his owner returned to the United Kingdom, she gave him to me because, she said, she knew he liked me and that he would be loved.

A moment of truth

The horse I’d been riding up until then was a zippy little white Throughbred, also a rescue horse. I loved her, but she was getting old. Kaycee was my succession plan. I’d ridden him once or twice before my friend left, but our first real outing was a group trek. I thought I was used to hills, but these hills were in a different class. Not far into the ride, we came to a steep slope that we had to get down.

Some people – experienced riders – got off and let their horses make their own way down. When it came to our turn I had no idea what would happen, but I loosened off the reins and pushed Kaycee forward. Right at that moment I knew we would be okay together. He stood at the top of the slope, sized it up, and set off. His front end disappeared beneath me. I clamped my legs on to his flanks, put my weight in my heels, and leaned back against his rump, which had reared up behind me like the back of a chair. We slid most of the way down.

Later on that same ride I fell off. I had assumed he would walk through a small ditch, like all the other horses were doing, but at the last minute he decided to jump, lurching me out of the saddle. I toppled sideways in slow motion and hit the ground. Kaycee, somewhat surprised to see me down there, stood motionless while I dusted myself off and found a place where I could mount again.

By the end of that ride we’d made our pact; I decide what direction and at what speed, and he picks the route. It’s a deal we stuck to, by and large, in the years since then.

The old surge of adrenaline

He’s a smart horse. At the top of a hill he stops and looks around, then starts zig-zagging his way down, picking a route that isn’t too steep and that offers sure footing. I sit on top of him, relaxed, holding the reins where they buckle together (so he’s got plenty of room to move his head) in one hand, with the other behind me for balance, either resting on his back or, when the going gets a little hairy, holding on to the back of the saddle. He does this for me. I’ve seen him charge, rider-less, down steep hills at a gallop, but I’ve had to remind him only a few times that he can’t do this with me on board, and then it’s been when horses with better riders are racing past him and he feels a surge of the old racing adrenaline. He might have been a race horse who thought it was rude to pass his friends, but he certainly wasn’t one who wanted to be left behind.

But for all the companionship and rules-of-engagement we’ve developed, we do have our arguments. And like any couple, they’re usually at home. Kaycee doesn’t like being ridden out alone. He can’t see the point in it. Horses are naturally reluctant to leave the herd (watch any nature documentary and you’ll see why; the animals who are picked off by predators are those who stray by themselves), and on top of that, solo rides are often boring. There’s no-one to race. So often when we ride out alone, he’s reluctant heading out, and eager as soon as we turn for home. So eager that we have major disagreements if I ask him to do anything on the way home.

But not that night. We rode out at a walk, following the track that runs along the ridgeline beside the road. On our right, across the road and beyond more farmland, lay the harbour. To our left the land fell away, to ponds and an area that’s swampy in winter, before rising up again to an even higher ridge with an old Maori pa site.

Bulls to all that

Eventually we got to an electric tape that was being used to keep a group of young bulls in one part of the paddock. Going further would mean getting off, unhooking the tape while holding Kaycee, leading him through, turning and hooking up the tape again, all the while being careful not to let it touch either of us. Then we’d have to make our way through the bulls to another tape. I’ve done it many times, but on that night I decided not to. Bulls tend to cluster around in a way that makes me nervous (my wariness of bulls verges on fear).

Instead, we turned left and I pushed Kaycee down into the paddock. Now the conditions were right for a classic head-for-home-type fight. He’d brightened as soon as I turned, assuming we were heading back to the herd and the feed he suspected I had waiting for him, but instead I asked him to go in a direction that was 90 degrees away from home.

Usually, he’d keep turning toward the track home as soon as I relaxed, but on that night he didn’t. He seemed to be enjoying the ride as much as I was. We walked along the tapeline to the bottom of the paddock, turned left again and walked across until we got to the fence line on the other side, then I gave him a quick nudge and we surged up the hill at a fast trot.

Standardbreds are born to trot. The breed arose in the United States in the late 19th century specifically for harness racing, in which horses pulling a cart and drivers race against each other. The “standard” part of their name refers to the fact that they had to do a mile in less than two-and-a-half minutes to qualify. Although in his racing days Kaycee was a pacer, meaning he moved the two legs on his left side and then the two legs on his right side in a gait which is fast but can be challenging to ride (your hips swivel like a washing-machine agitator), as a ridden horse he trots.

Trotting uphill is a good thing

And does he trot. I’ve had him open up in a full trot on the beach and it’s like riding a machine. His legs go like pistons, the rhythm is amazing, and he gets faster and faster. The first time we did it we were riding with a friend who was in a canter trying to keep up with us, and verging on a gallop when she asked us to stop.

He didn’t quite do that on that night, but we powered up the hill, our senses tuned into each other and enjoying the thrill of speed. Trotting uphill is good for building fitness, so when we turned into the next paddock we did the same thing again. Once again he didn’t argue, and this time when we got halfway back up the hill again I sat back in the saddle and let him go into a canter.

In the next paddock we had to go to the bottom of the hill and then up the hill and through the narrow bit by the house. Past the house, we usually turn left and head for home, but on this night I pushed him down the hill on the other side. This hill is steep and runs down into a shady, damp area which none of my horses like. I ride them up and down it when I want to do some exercise and haven’t got time to ride out. Kaycee in particular usually needs coaxing to go down, but on that night down we went no questions asked. When I turned him around he didn’t need any encouragement to go; as soon as I squeezed his flanks we were off. This time we didn’t even pretend to start out with a muscle-building trot; we were racing.

This hill is steep, so I stood in the saddle to get my weight off his back and leaned slightly forward. Although he wasn’t particularly fit and we weren’t going as fast as we have at times, I was struck once again by the sheer strength of my horse. I could feel the power driving up from his back legs, while his front legs pulled us up the hill.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing

Towards the top we veered right and had a short canter along the flat before I started pulling him in. There was an electric tape across the paddock which, with hindsight, I could have – should have – left open on the way out, but didn’t because I wasn’t completely sure that there was no stock in a part of the paddock I couldn’t see.

Kaycee came back to Earth, as I think of it, as we neared the tape. I was slightly worried that he wouldn’t see it in the half-light and would go charging to the yards like we used to do, but he listened to me saying that wasn’t going to happen and came back to me. His breathing slowed and he dropped into a trot and then a walk and then stopped. I slid to the ground, slipped the reins over his head and led him to where the tape was hooked up to the fence.

Through we went, but when I went to hook the tape back up again it was difficult. Kaycee was acting a bit strangely, so I decided to leave it on the ground and come back to it. Where we were now was only a short walk from the yards. Such a short walk, in fact, that it was hardly worth getting back on, but I was enjoying the ride so much that I wanted to squeeze the last bit out of it.

Getting on to a tall horse from the ground can be a challenge when you’re not very flexible (I could never touch my toes, not even as a child), so I led him to one of the small mounds of dirt dumped in the paddock by a digger that had graded the driveway. Standing on it, I gathered the reins, my crop and a handful of mane in my left hand and lifted my left leg to put it in the stirrup.

Run first, think later

That’s when it happened. The electric tape which I had left loose flapped in a sudden breeze. It wasn’t very dramatic, but to Kaycee it was. My trusty, dependable, sensible horse jumped sideways into me. From where I was, teetering on one leg with most of my weight against him, I could see the whites of his eyes and the alarm on his face. I slid down his side and hit the dirt.

Then I was on my back and he was over me. His legs were dancing out in all directions as he tried to avoid me (he’s saved me like this before), but by then he was well and truly spooked. Horses have survived for millennia because of their speed. They run first and think later. We humans have harnessed that speed for our own purposes. We’ve desensitised them to things that would panic a wild horse, and we’ve taught them to listen to us even when they are scared.

But there is a limit. From Kaycee’s point of view, the scary snake or whatever it was had just got me and he needed to get out of there. This time, there was no standing still while I got myself together and got back on. This time he bolted, stomping on my leg with his right hind hoof in the process.

Next post – The Rescue

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