June 2020 - Releasing the Heavy Weight of Things Beyond Our Control
Written by by Hilary Burkemper
Thursday, 28 May 2020 03:43
PDF Print E-mail


Mental & physical recovery from an injury offer lessons relevant to all through this COVID crisis.

by Hilary Burkemper

As the orthopedic surgeon pointed to the x-rays and CT scan images of my knee, he said the words no rider ever wants to hear. “I’m sorry, Hilary, but you have torn your three major knee ligaments, including your ACL, as well as broken your kneecap. You’re going to have to have surgery, and it’s typically a long, hard recovery. I hate to tell you, but you won’t be riding a horse for 6-9 months, maybe longer.”

After a brief moment of shock, I immediately discounted what the doctor had just told me as his mistake or misunderstanding. Yes, one of my beloved whippets had run straight into the side of my knee at mock speed causing my entire knee to shift outside the parameters of my leg, but I had since walked and even ridden on it.


There was no way I could stop riding right now. It was June, just the start to our 2019 three-day eventing season, and I had passionately worked, dedicated, sacrificed and fought for years to compete at the four-star level (and hopefully 5 star some day!). We had just finished fourth in Woodside’s competitive Advanced division only a week prior. My horse, Undercover (aka “Ace”) and I were primed and ready for Montana’s 2019 4-star long course, which was less than two months away.



As I respectfully explained to the surgeon why his diagnosis was impossible, he stopped, stared into my eyes and coldly stated that I needed to immediately proceed to bed and be immobile as possible for the next month so that the swelling could subside. Then he could operate.  

I told him I preferred to postpone the operation until the end of the season, at which point he bluntly informed me that if I chose to delay the surgery, remove the full-length cast he had just tightly strapped on my leg or refrain from using the crutches he had just put under my arms, I could actually lose my leg.

That got my attention.

Suddenly, I was forced to face a new reality. Not only was Montana out, it was only June and my entire 2019 competition season was over. But now I had to focus on basic issues like how would I drive home, how would I go to work, how would I care for my four dogs and myself?

Thankfully Ace was under the excellent training and care of Erin Kellerhouse and her outstanding crew at Swift Ridge Eventing at Galway Downs, so I didn’t have to worry about him. But as I slowly came to fathom that my show season was over, tears and feelings of helplessness, disappointment and uncertainty overwhelmed me.

Stop Being A Baby

During the first month after my injury, I tried to stop being a baby and feeling sorry for myself. I began to ask friends for help in getting my daily activities done and started going back to work on a restricted schedule.

But as someone who thrives on being outdoors, active and on a horse’s back, being confined to bed for 14-16 hours a day felt like a death sentence. I was trying my best to be positive and remain engaged, but every day I was just feeling more and more useless and disconnected from the world, myself and the things that made me happy.

Sensing my struggle, a friend recommended I use my new free time to focus on becoming a stronger, smarter and better rider. She knew riding and competing not only brought me joy but kindled a fire deep inside me.

Realizing I need some sort of lifeline, I agreed. My new strategy was to give 100% at physical therapy, and I would finally dive into that big stack of horsemanship and riding videos, books and articles that had collected over the years.

Finally, I thought, I now had the proper time to learn from the masters about how to have a better canter, how to ride the perfect three-loop serpentine,  how to best ride those technical Normandy banks, and a myriad of other topics that I wanted to learn about and improve.

An Unfamiliar Me

This new game plan got me so excited that I actually felt a little euphoric, like a rival had just challenged me. I couldn’t wait to show them what I was really made of! I was exhilarated at the thought that I was going to come back faster, stronger and better than anyone else who had sustained this type of injury. But I also remember thinking at times that this was sort of an odd reaction to my current predicament, but I resisted challenging it.

However, within a couple months after surgery, things changed drastically. I found myself really struggling emotionally. The drive I had felt to improve myself had disappeared, my life-long passion for horses and riding had inexplicably waned, and a general feeling of malaise and discontent took over all aspects of my life.

I had no interest in reading, learning any skillsets, talking with friends, being social or even engaging in any activity. Thoughts of maybe I didn’t want to ride in a 5-star, or maybe even ride at all, began to creep into my head. Were all my efforts, time, devotion to riding over the past two decades just a waste of time?

What have I been doing with my life, am I on the right path, and are horses really a part of my future?

The overwhelming sense that I had lost my passion, place and purpose in life was especially difficult because it was completely unfamiliar. I’ve always been the type to set goals, put my nose to the grindstone, try my hardest, and not give up until those goals were achieved. Why wasn’t that working now? Again, after spending countless hours crying, and with the help of a very wise friend, I finally decided I needed to pick myself up by the bootstraps (or crutches in this case) and re-approach my problem in a different way.

Designing A New Course

So, at that moment and going forward, I would no longer focus on all the things I couldn’t do and instead turn my attention to those things I could control. Every day after work, I was either at the physical therapist or pursuing some alternative form of therapy that would make me strong and mobile.

I opened up my world beyond my past horizons and pursued new opportunities—learning how to meditate through a transcendental meditation course, joining the board of my city’s local historical museum, and taking a two-week trip to Paris by myself (purposefully horse-free, except for admiring those painted by the masters and hanging on the walls at the Louvre!).

But most importantly, I would stop being judgmental with myself. I tried to stop being mad, sad, or disappointed with the things I was able to do or not do, and instead focus only on appreciating and enjoying even the simplicity of the things I was doing.

I decided that I would forgo making any big life decisions until I was healed and had a more balanced perspective of what changes I wanted to make. Once I let go of the worry, fear, and lack of control, my sense of self, happiness and optimism gradually returned. My passion for horses and riding came back, my path in life seemed clear again, and much to my surprise, I walked through new doors of opportunity and enrichment that empowered me in ways I hadn’t imagined.

After much work, dedication and determination, I’m happy to say that I actually did beat my doctor’s estimated recovery date and was able to get on Ace five months post-surgery. I’m now back to riding and in pursuit of that 4-star and hopefully 5-star event with Ace. I try to savor every moment I spend with Ace and am thankful for every ride on his back.  

And as soon as COVID-19 releases its grips on the world and the eventing season opens, Ace and I are fired up to begin competing in 2020!  

Sharing What I’ve Learned

I’m sharing my story in hopes it might help others struggling with realities that are out of our control, including the pandemic.

My recovery taught me, first and foremost, that we have to remember that we are always at the mercy of enormous, unthinkable events that are outside our control. But if we can remain kind and patient with ourselves and our healing, ask for and be open to help from others, refrain from making reactionary decisions, and open our minds to new and even unfamiliar opportunities, these terrible events can actually present enriching openings in life of which we never imagined.  

We all know we’ll face more disruptions and crises in our lives, but if we can focus on the things over which we have some control, our lives and dreams are only limited by our own imaginations.