I remember many things about my trail ride on 11/11/14. The one thing I don’t remember is hitting my head.
I had a beautiful ride that afternoon. I had stumbled upon a Norwegian woman with Quarter Horses, and in a fit of trust she suggested I borrow her horse to go riding alone in the woods without a helmet. This situation sounds like a recipe for disaster… And yet it wasn’t. We ambled along, the horse and I, while I composed a song whose lyrics went like this: “How the hell did I find myself here? / What the fuck is happening? / Is this real life? / Pinch me, I’m dreaming.” It was exciting to find myself in such a bizarre set of circumstances, enjoying the Norwegian woods from the back of an American horse whose temperament was just as I remembered from my own horses: comfortable and lazy. It was bliss.
Back at the home of my host, Mette (who I’d met in Iceland), asked if I wanted to ride her horse alone? I had ridden her new eventing (a sport which includes dressage, jumping, and cross-country racing) horse, Cayenne, yesterday with Mette riding a different one. That was another fantastic ride even through the drizzling rain. Having felt so immediately at ease with Cayenne the day before, I gladly agreed. This way, Mette could get some work done, and I would be happily entertained by one of my favorite pastimes. Win/win/win. We went to the stable and saddled up, making sure to put reflective gear on both me and the horse since it was an hour before dark. Donning Mette’s helmet, I set off for the same trail we had taken the day before.
Cayenne was noticeably less relaxed than the day before, but not worryingly so. We rode up the road to the entrance to the park, and if she was less willing to go around the traffic barrier and terrifying boulder than the day before, then I didn’t blame her. We rode through the woods and encountered two pedestrians and their dogs, which Cayenne (having been scared by a charging dog before) stopped and watched rather than any other bad behavior. We turned around after having ridden for 20 minutes, so that we could conserve the light for our ride home. I admit now that I am a poor judge of how much light is left in autumn in Scandinavia. In Denmark, I had to walk in the dark for a half hour back to my car after walking in the woods.
When we were nearly out of the park, we crossed a bridge and turned a corner to see a strange sight. There was a man with a flashlight and a dog with a blinking red light on his forehead. Knowing Cayenne’s nerves, and since it was twilight to boot, I stopped her so she could get a good look at what was approaching her. She backed up a few steps in fear and the dog barked and began to chase her. We bolted back over the bridge, me unstable in the small English riding saddle, but yelling for her to stop and using all of my horse expertise to convince her that sprinting up the trail was not in her best interest. I managed to stop her and turn her around to see that the dog was no longer in pursuit. The man had his dog on a leash and had moved into the woods to get out of our way. Unfortunately to the horse brain, now the dreaded Predator was lurking in the woods. I managed to communicate through my anger that I only speak English, was his dog safely on a leash, and maybe he shouldn’t do that ever again. At this point I noticed beyond the bridge was another man with two dogs. I asked him to put his dogs on a leash if they weren’t already and he continued on his way. Cayenne was understandably spooked, and I was proud of her for listening to me in the first place. We walked past the scary dog in the woods with minimal snorting.
I never saw the horse coming.
Behind us we both heard the sound of a running horse. It did not register anything special to me, but to Cayenne, they weren’t just running, they were running from something. She already had first-hand confirmation that there was at least one Horse Monster in the woods, and she did not need any more convincing. She sprinted with less warning and faster than I have ever experienced. The second man with two dogs was further up the path and I yelled at him to get out of the way (though I did not remember this until two hours later). I knew with a certainty that I was on a runaway horse who was not amenable to any of my demands, and this was the most dangerous experience I’ve ever been a part of. After passing the man but not running over him or his dogs, I remembered the traffic barrier and “terrifying” rock at the park entrance. I tried even harder to get her to stop but to no avail. There was nothing for me to hold on to in the saddle, and I lost my balance when she slowed down upon noticing the barrier. Within a few steps I had almost gotten myself seated back in the saddle. Too frightened to actually stop, she gathered her strength and jumped the meter-high obstacle. When we landed, I was hanging on her neck with the reigns still in my hands. For a few paces I attempted to simultaneously stop the horse using the reigns and get back in the saddle, all the while thinking of where we would go if I actually managed to stay on her. Which, I did not.
What I remember from the fall is this: Impact on my left hip, thinking “I’m going to have to get back on the horse” which did not last long as I felt the blinding pain in my back and hip, and then remembering that I should not stand up. I had entirely forgotten the hiker with his two dogs as well as the rider of the horse and became immediately terrified that nobody would find me, and I wouldn’t be able to tell anyone to go look for Cayenne. I did however remember the first dog but had forgotten it was leashed, and, though I was screaming for help, became almost as frightened that the dog would find me and bite me while I was unable to run away.
It felt like an eternity, but the two men with dogs found me (without their dogs, though I did not notice or wonder about that until much later). They bombarded me with questions in Norwegian until they understood I was American. I think for every question they asked, “Are you ok? Did you hit your head? Do you need an ambulance?” I responded with one of my own, “Can you find my horse? She’s my friend’s horse, can you go look for her?” Eventually a girl walked over leading a horse and I asked, “Are you what scared the shit out of my horse?” I never did get an answer to that… I asked her to search for Cayenne and she agreed. Some time later she returned with another horse (I wondered at how strange a view it is to see a horse from the position of lying on the ground) and said her friend had seen Cayenne running. Did I want them to follow her? Uh, what a dumb question, the answer is yes. Please find the horse.
The first man called the emergency number while the second called Mette. I was asked what hurt, how I fell, did I hit my head? Eventually they asked me to stand up and I became nauseous. This development provoked even more questions about my head and I vehemently responded, “NO. I did not hit my head.” They asked my birth date and social security number. I rattled off the first easily but paused to recall my 9-digit identification. It was decided for me that the second man, whose car was in the parking lot I had fallen in, would drive me to the hospital. With one man on each arm, they helped me walk to the front seat, and off we went.
My rescuer was named Paul. We drove to Mette’s house and met her outside on the road. I cried and apologized for losing Cayenne, and she told me not to worry. She stayed behind to look for her and Paul agreed to drive me the rest of the way to the hospital. He was a fantastic conversationalist, and I wished I’d met him in better circumstances. We talked about his grandchildren, being left-handed, practicing English, my scholarship, and how pretty the Norwegian woods are. He told me Cayenne would be fine and had probably walked home already.
At the hospital, I laid down on a couch and dictated my personal information to Paul for the paperwork. I was given acetaminophen in the triage room, sat back down in the waiting room, and then put in an emergency room to wait for the doctor. At this point, we had gotten a call from Mette that Cayenne had indeed walked home and been caught, and a wave of emotion washed over me. In past situations, I have had a calm head in stressful times, but that persona had vanished. Feeling slightly better than the first shock of terror and pain, I began to hide my discomfort in humor. I think every sentence from my mouth was an attempt to make Paul smile. Mette came to the hospital just as the doctor showed up and I said goodbye to Paul, who had patiently waited with a stranger he’d met in the woods an hour before. Since my hands were scraped up we exchanged an odd left-handed handshake.
The doctor was a bit full of himself and swept in the room saying, “Hello, my name is such and such, and I am the doctor.” I replied just as darkly, “Hello, my name is McKenna, and I am the patient.” He did not smile at my hilarious effort, bastard, but instead said that a smiling patient is his favorite kind. Clearly he was unaware as to my coping mechanism. He asked me loads of questions, starting with “Did you hit your head?” I said no, once again vehement. By examining me and moving my legs painfully all around, he concluded I had not fractured my hip in the fall but did have massive bruising. After checking my wrist he said it was unlikely to be fractured. But since I was nauseous, I probably had a concussion. I was so surprised but who am I to critique the doctor? He then handed me acetaminophen and hydrocodone for pain, and I snapped at him that if he’d read my chart he would know that I was allergic to codine. He looked slightly ashamed and said, “Thank you for telling me.” Thank god it wasn’t a bigger concussion or I might have added “stopped breathing” to my list of aches and pains.
Mette paid for my hospital bill (I didn’t have a wallet on me) which was surprisingly cheap. We drove home and that is the point at which I remembered running past Paul (for the second man with dogs was Paul) in the woods. Nausea plus forgetting a part of the accident made the doctor’s diagnosis of concussion seem more likely to me…. And then I saw the helmet. “I didn’t hit my head” my ass. These are not the scrapes of a life-saving helmet, but there are still obvious scratches all around the front and side of the helmet. I did not remember rolling at all but the helmet and unexpected bruising this morning confirm that.
I took unnecessary risks by going out on a quarter horse with no helmet in unfamiliar woods carrying no cellphone. I did not think it unduly risky to ride a horse for the second time, wearing a helmet, in the same woods as the day before. As a competent rider, I was able to quiet a horse after we were chased by a dog, and it was the unfortunate circumstances of the failing light and being surprised by other horses around a corner that set off Cayenne in the end. I suppose I can end with the platitude that I will be more careful in the future, but I am generally a very careful rider. I visited Cayenne today and was not unduly upset. I think I will be more nervous of dogs in the future, but so will she. It is amazing that she and I are both, on the whole, unhurt by the terrible experience. I thank my body for all it has put up with and am grateful that it was not worse. I am a bit impressed that I was able to stay on a leaping horse, but not so much that I’ll try to incorporate jumping into my riding routine any time soon.
I think what I will end with is this: do not trust someone, especially me, when they say, “No I definitely did not hit my head.”