(first published in The Equiery March 1999)
The Meaning of Courage
It is commonly said “horsepeople are different.” As Denny Emerson wrote so eloquently in the recent steeplechase issue of The Chronicle of the Horse, each individual possesses his or her own capacity for risk. For the average non-horseperson, just the fact that a horseperson can handle and work so easily around and among these huge, beautiful creatures is an act of courage. But even among horseman, there are different levels of courage and capacity for risk: the dressage rider or western pleasure rider not being able to fathom the risks of endurance rider, balanced precariously on a narrow mountain ledge; the show hunter thinking eventers are insane; and almost everyone thinking foxhunters are insane. Perhaps no one sport takes to the extreme the limits of courage and capacity for risk as steeplechasing.
But all horsemen, no matter what their capacity for risk, spend hours training themselves and their horses, focused on their goals, honing and refining their techniques, which are the bedrock of their courage. Perhaps this is what makes horsepeople different, and perhaps this is what has given the following three Maryland horseman the fortitude to keep working; to build a better life for themselves by overcoming the greatest obstacle of all; what every horseman dreads the most, that one slight moment in time when their world comes, literally, crashing down around them, shattering their spines and their lives.
When Christopher Reeve was paralyzed in a fall during the cross country phase of a local horse trial, the country’s attention was riveted. Reeve has brought unprecedented attention, money and research to recovery from spinal cord injuries. But for the average horsemen, he was removed from our lives, remote, a testimony to “that happens to ‘other people,’ not us.”
But then comes the day when it does happen, to you, to me, to our neighbor, to our best friend, mentor, or community icon. And when it does, not only does it change that person, but it changes us, and it changes the community, forever.
Here are three stories about our friends, neighbors, community membors, and business associates. Three horsemen and how they faces, and are continuing to face, the greatest obstacle of their life. Three horsemen, whose stories of courage fill us with awe, inspiration, and humility. These three give new meaning to the old adage “eyes up,kick on!” –Crystal Brumme, ed.
BY ROSS PEDDICORD
“They didn’t say, ‘Oh, you’ll never walk again,'” Tim McGrath recalls about his rehabilitation from an accident that nearly claimed his life. At age 21, he foxhunted, rode steeplechases and raced dirt bikes. Had he not had his motocross helmet on when his bike spun out of control and plunged down a 20 foot embankment, his skull-not just his neck, left femur and right ankle-might have been crushed.
In fact, the ankle was so badly mangled, doctors wanted to amputate. And that was just an ancillary problem. He was paralyzed from the neck down, a quadriplegic who reacted so badly to steroids that two emergency holes had to be drilled into his skull to prevent swelling of his brain.
Even if he made a full recovery, Tim’s life would change forever. So much so that he may struggle to partake in the workplace, due to any physical injuries or psychological problems that have hindered his life. If this were to happen, he wouldn’t be the only person who will have to deal with applying for social security disability benefits, with the help of companies like Crest SSD, so that Tim would get what he is rightly owed. After everything Tim had faced during his accident and recovery, this would seem easy.
Tim persevered. “I was young, fit, and got to the hospital within that ‘golden hour.’ You have a much better chance of survival if you are stabilized in that first hour. I landed in a raspberry patch; hospital workers told me later they picked raspberry stickers off me when I first came in.”
He remembers being put in a “Stryker Frame.” “I was in traction and I’d lie there, immovable, staring at the ceiling for four or five hours. Then, they’d flip me around, and I’d stare at the floor for four or five hours. Still, I don’t ever recall contemplating suicide. I just wanted to sleep a lot. It’s funny, but when I’d dream, I was never in a wheelchair. It takes six or seven months for your brain to adapt for, well, this new state of being to sink into your subconscious. So when you dream, you are always walking.”
Before the accident, Tim had had some experience in karate and in meditation. In the hospital, he engaged in visualization and credits that technique with helping t save his ankle. “I’d draw a line from my head to my ankle and visualize green, which is the color of healing,” he explains. “I’d picture my ankle four times its size and circulation there twice the size. I kept practicing visualization over and over. Eventually my ankle healed and they didn’t have to cut off my foot.”
Tim also gained a sense of calm and well-being from an uncle who practiced Buddhism. “One day, he brought in a monk, who gave me a chant. “To this day, I can still recite it:
May you be well happy and peaceful;
May no harm come to you;
May no difficulties come to you;
May you always meet with success;
May you always have patience, courage,
understanding, and determination
To meet and overcome all inevitable
difficulties, problems and failures in life.”
After four months in the rehabilitation unit at Fairfax Hospital, Tim spent three more months at the Craigh Institute in Denver, Colorado. He underwent electronic stimulation and shock therapy and started swimming. “In the water, I could walk,” he said. Eventually, feeling returned to his left side. After a year, he moved into a wheelchair and after two years onto crutches.
“The biggest adjustment at first is learning to rely on other people,” explained Tim.
Eventually, after pins were removed from his leg, Tim got back on horseback and won medals for the United States at the International Games for the Disabled on Long Island.
Now, nearly twenty years later, Tim McGrath is a successful real estate agent and farmer. He walks, nearly miraculously, with only a limp. He drives a car. He hunts with the hilltoppers for Potomac and Goshen, the latter of which his mother, Jane McGrath has been a long time member. He is a former president and currant vice-president of TROT (Trail Riders of Today). He helps his partner, Kevin Bowie, with her twenty-horse operation, mucking stalls and carting feed.
He knows he has beaten the odds and could very well still be confined to a wheelchair. His accident has taught him patience. Today, he radiates a sense of calm, inner peace and well-being, perhaps a greater understanding of life than most of us will ever know. His experience has also taught him the true meaning of friendship (“my true friends hung in there with me and just rolled with it”), and the value of a sense of humor. “Now, at Christmas, everyone wants to borrow my car to go to the mall because of my handicapped plates,” Tim quipped. “I have to remind them I had to break my neck to get them.”
Brenda Bower Herzog
It’s 7:30 a.m., and Brenda Bower Herzog is rattling feed cans.
She’s been up for about an hour, watching Garfield with her two year old daughter, Maggie. “Then, when Maggie gets engrossed in Arthur, I go out and feed the horses,” she explains. Her husband Mike had already left for work as a heavy equipment operator for the Baltimore County Department of Roads and Highways.
Despite the early hour, Brenda Herzog loves her job. She is living a lifelong dream, operating her own lesson and show barn, Good To Go Farm, in the heart of the Green Spring Valley hunt country.
The fact that she feeds her horses from a wheelchair, and gives lessons from a golf cart barely slows her down, or dampens her enjoyment of her life. She is a living testament to the power of perseverance and a driving will to succeed.
Until that fateful day eight years ago, Brenda Bower was pursing a relatively carefree horse life, typical of many young women in the area. She had graduated from Towson High School and from the Morven Park International Equestrian Institute in Leesburg, Virginia; had woked for Olympic rider Karen Lende O’Conner, and at the Foxcroft School in Middleburg. She had returned to the Baltimore area, leased her farm, and, to help underwrite her new venture, worked as a veterinary technician and took a part-time job galloping race horses for ‘chase trainers Bruce and Charlie Fenwick, Jennifer Small, and then later at Sagamore Farm.
It was during the winter of ’91 when trainer John Pizzurro, who was renting stalls at Sagamore, asked her to get on a few horses and she agreed. “Little did I know the horses hadn’t been out of their stalls for days,” Brenda recalled. A young horse bolted, ran into the wall of the indoor galloping track, and left Brenda in a crumpled heap.
“I tried, but I couldn’t sit up,” Brenda said. She had a punctured lung, broken five ribs, fractured a collarbone and a thoracic T4-T5 spinal injury, which left her paralyzed at the chest level. She was flown by helicopter to the Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore, where she remained for a month. Then, like Tim McGrath, Brenda began her rehabilitation at the Craigh Institute in Colorado.
“Right from the start, they didn’t cut you any slack,” Brenda recalled. “When I first got there, I wanted a glass of water. The nurse told me, ‘Get up and get it yourself.’ I did manage to get over to the sink, but then I threw up and barely made it back to bed.”
After three months of strenuous physical and occupational therapy, Brenda returned to Maryland. She drove with Sybil Dukehart and Driving for the Disabled. She taught disabled riders at the Carroll County Agricultural Center.
Neighbors and friends rallied around her and a year after her accident, bought Brenda a fully-equipped handicapped-drivable van.
“The first time I drove to the grocery store, I was nervous and scared,” Brenda said. “I parked in the lot, pushed my buttons and thought, ‘Well, everybody is going to stare at the crip and think oh that poor girl.’ The fact is, no one stared at all. That’s when I realized this doesn’t have to be that hard.”
“I’ve learned that people are really good,” Brenda explained. “They are easy going about this situation. They offer to help, but don’t overdo it.”
And for Brenda, she just keeps fulfilling her dreams. Today she teaches about a dozen of her own able-bodied students at Good To Go Farm, and keeps fourteen horses of her own and for clients, including some layups for ‘chase trainer, Alicia Murphy. Since her accident, she has married and has given birth, “without any problems at all.”
As she watches her daughter race down the center aisle, Brenda’s infectious smile lights up the barn. It won’t be long before Maggie, too, is on a pony, galloping, just like her mother, across the valley countryside.
Word traveled fast, Bay Cockburn, the seemingly invincible steeplechase jockey and Evel Knievel of all huntsmen, who built four-foot coops and jumped the trappiest places with the greatest of ease, had nearly been killed in a fall. All sorts of rumors abounded. He was breaking a horse and it threw him. He lay unconscious in a field for hours without help. The horse had bolted before a jump and dragged him. You name it, and the word spread.
Now, nearly a year later, the dust has settled and Bay, before television cameras and in his own words in a column he writes for the Virginia Publication In & Around Horse Country, is telling his own story: Bay Cockburn is surviving, thanks in no small part to a loving family, wonderful friends and his own, indomitable spirit.
It was a year ago April. Bay, former huntsman for Goshen and current huntsman for the Loudoun West pack in Leesburg, VA, and a prolific amateur steeplechase jockey to boot, was exercising a horse out in a field and had just jumped a small fence. About three feet after landing, “I was looking for a place in the fence line where I might take my puppies through when I took them out in a couple days,” Bay recalled. “I had kinda jogged over the fence and was just in a slow, loopy canter. The horse wanted to go right. I was looking left, I wasn’t paying any attention, and wham, I was thrown head first into a tree. Completely rider error.”
It’s the sort of accident that could have happened to any rider going out in a field. What made it particularly shocking is that Bay was the kind of rider who could break both arms, and go back to riding races with both arms in casts. He lived fast, rode in pain, took chances, and lived life in the most absolute, most visceral sense of the word, with the derring-do sort of devil-may-care, damn the torpedoes cavalierness. Like his horses and his hounds, Bay lived life to live life, not to contemplate life from the sidelines.
Now, after breaking his C6 and C7 vertebrae, he is paralyzed from the chest down, forced from a life in the fast lane to one on the sidelines. How does a vibrant contestant in the game of life become a spectator of that game? The answer is, he doesn’t. He just finds another way to participate in the game.
First there is the challenge of excruciating physical therapy, five times a week, that at times leaves Bay so exhausted he can drop off into a doze and not wake up for hours.
Then there is the extreme cold in his limbs that might never go away. He explains it as his body’s thermostat being “out of whack.” Brenda Herzog concurs on the cold, noting that she still gets so cold at times that “I have to put both a heating blanket and heating pad over me to keep warm. I think it comes from lack of circulation.”
There is the relying on people to do things for him “that I used to take for granted,” he said. But, he says, he is learning “patience and how to delegate. I have to get used to explaining to people how I want things done instead of just going off an doing them myself. It’s hard, but I’m learning. Mostly, what you have to do is retrain your mind.”
Physically, Bay gets around in a wheelchair, and is currently training a pair of steeplechase horses, although his prime 1999 point-to-point prospect, Fontaine Keys, recently fractured a splint bone and his racing career has been delayed.
This past season, Cockburn continued to serve as Joint Master of the Loudoun West, hilltopping from a Pathfinder. He is working on his strength so he can eventually follow hounds in a pony cart.
Meanwhile, a new addition is being built onto the house near Oatland Farms in Laytonsville that he shares with his wife Chrissy and their two children, Sammy and Katie. The addition, just off of the kitchen, consists of a spacious family room with a fireplace and bedrooms, and will allow Bay to more fully participate in daily family life.
On a recent visit, bedridden with one of the many infections to which he is prone, Bay talked horses while watching an old cavalry movie with Sammy. His gratitude for the support he and Chrissy have received from the community overwhelms him, “but,” he added, “they can only do so much for you. Then, you’ve got to do things for yourself.
Basically, you’ve just gotta get on with life. Really, there’s no choice.”
UPDATE: On December 25, 2013, Bay Cockburn died from complications due to melanoma. He was 57.