It happened in the blink of an eye.
One moment, Kaitey Cosgrove was merely walking around the arena on her four-year-old off-track hunter prospect. The next, she felt a crack in her back and then her neck as she plummeted face-first into the dirt.
Her helmet would cut deep into her forehead. As she collided with the hard ground, her body would flip over, snapping her back and neck in places that would send shooting pangs throughout her body for weeks.
Kaitey wasn’t surprised when she was diagnosed with a concussion. It took months for her brain and body to heal from what she described as a freak accident. But the fear she harbored of falling again would make her question everything she ever loved about being around horses.
“I had always been a little bit of a nervous rider, but only when the fences started to go up. After that fall, I was terrified of every step he took,” said Kaitey, 30. “I was so nervous, I ended up selling him.”
Heels Down Mag is exploring the stories of equestrian athletes who’ve suffered from concussions, and the short and long term effects of the injury on their health and performance. This is the fifth story.
Kaitey’s connection to horses is one we’ve heard before. She grew up taking lessons around her home in Ontario, Canada. Her parents bought her a pony and then a horse. She spent the summers teaching camp and lessons, and showed regularly as a teenager on the hunter/jumper circuits.
I am a horse person through and through. This is what I do. It’s my thing and my passion. I don’t want to live a life that doesn’t include horses.
Then it was time for college, and her passion for horses was placed on the back burner. But not for long. The itch to ride never went away.
So she bought a young, green Thoroughbred gelding shortly after graduating. Romeo was a handsome blood bay gelding with cute gaits and fancy jump. Kaitey was thrilled for the opportunity to bring him along in the hunter ring as an adult amateur. But their riding career together would be short-lived.
The first time Romeo tripped, it was 2013 and Kaitey was schooling flying lead changes with her trainer.
“That coach liked me to ride long and low, and he was built downhill already,” she described. “So when he tripped, he literally did a somersault over me. It was one of those really scary falls to witness. I remember getting up and having no idea what just happened. I knew I fell head first. But I shook myself off and got back on.”
They ended the ride right away, and Kaitey gave her horse a few days to recover. The next time she came out to the barn and climbed back in the saddle, her horse tripped again. This time, it was while walking at the very beginning of their ride. Still, he crumbled to the ground.
The second time, Kaitey hit her head even harder. She slammed into the ground face-first, and the momentum of her legs arched her back until she flipped over. Immediately she felt fuzzy and sore.
“I thought I’d broken my neck. It was really scary,” Kaitey recalled. Still, she didn’t go to the emergency room right away. She drove home and took it easy that night. By the next day, her head was pounding and she couldn’t stay focused at her desk at work.
She left her job at the Bank of Canada early that day and went to the E.R., where she was not only diagnosed with a concussion, but also second impact syndrome. Kaitey would end up taking eight weeks away from work to recover. At home, she avoided television screens and even her mobile phone. The man who is now her husband used to read to her at night, because she couldn’t focus on words for more than a few seconds at a time without her head starting to hurt.
“Because I had fallen twice, my concussion was 10 times worse,” she said. “The doctors and my family told me I’d be crazy to ride again, that if I hit my head again, I could face permanent damage. It was scary to think about that risk. I was hoping to get married soon and we wanted to have kids. Horses are just a hobby. But it’s also such a big part of my life.”
Getting Over the Trauma
Kaitey ultimately sold her horse. Friends would offer her catch rides occasionally of their own horses, but every time Kaitey climbed into the saddle, the same fear would take over, paralyzing her.
Eventually Romeo found her way back into her life. His new owner was training with a friend of Kaitey’s, and the opportunity arose to half-lease her old horse.
“I was so scared of riding him,” she admits. “I was excited to spend time with him again, but I was so nervous that he was going to trip.”
That was the final straw, which pushed Kaitey to take a step back from horses for a while. She did get married. And now, five years after her concussions, she’s a mom with a one and two year old at home.
“I never said, ‘I’m never going to ride again,’ it just wasn’t my priority at the time. I knew it would be again later,” she said.
Taking a step back convinced her that she needed to ride safer horses to get her confidence back. At first, that was hard for her to admit. She tried out a new barn and a new coach, and began taking lessons on a trusty schoolmaster.
Kaitey half leased a Draft/Appaloosa/Hanoverian-cross gelding named Rummy, whom she describes as the “fattest, laziest horse you’ve ever met in your life.”
Kids ride him in lessons regularly, and he’s also sturdy and safe enough to get Kaitey over a 3-foot fence.
“He’s a saint,” she described. “He gets over the other side of the jump no matter what. He helped me get my confidence back. It just took five years.”
Kaitey says she gets to the barn two-to-three times most weeks. Sometimes not at all. Sometimes just once. But the barn isn’t a place riddled with anxiety anymore. It’s where she can relax and enjoy time with the animals she loves again.
Even with having young kids, no matter how busy we are, I have to go to the barn. I come back rested, recharged and happy.
“I am a horse person through and through. This is what I do. It’s my thing and my passion. I don’t want to live a life that doesn’t include horses,” she said bluntly. “You can hit your head any day. You can slip on the ice, it can happen anywhere. You can’t live your life bring afraid.”
Kaitey says her family is supportive of her riding endeavors now, despite their fears early on after her accident.
“My husband’s learned that no horses is a dealbreaker for me. He sees the value of the mental health side of it,” she explained. “Even with having young kids, no matter how busy we are, I have to go to the barn. I come back rested, recharged and happy.”
Taking that step back to reassess her relationship with horses and riding gave her a new perspective.
“If I was 16 again, I would be happy to ride the challenging ones again. But I’m a mother now, and I have to think, do I want to risk my children’s livelihood? Is it worth it? Sometimes the guilt still follows me. If I had a bad fall, if my ability to do my job and make money for my family was taken away forever, I would feel horrible.”
What this entire experience has taught her, however, is that the mentality she developed from taking lessons and showing all the time as a junior is not the only way to enjoy horses and riding.
“I was at the barn every day. I know now it’s not all or nothing.”