Editor’s Note: Jessica Hedges is the wife of a cowboy, mother to two buckaroos in training, and a day-working cowboy every chance she gets. Through her business, Branded in Ink, Jess helps cowboy gear makers and western lifestyle brands fulfill their photography, graphic/website design, copywriting, networking and strategy needs. She is a self-proclaimed recovering workaholic who enjoys reading, running, and traveling as long as she can return to the high desert of eastern Oregon where she calls home.
I was dazed, in pain, and driven by a primal conviction that my sleeping limbs must become functional. The rattling of hard plastic pounded in my ears as I beat my right hand against the sideboard of a medical bed. There was no pain or relief. I slammed my right foot against the cold floor, desperate to rid myself of the tingling sensation. Nothing changed.
My husband, Sam, explained that we were at the hospital: I had come off my filly and had been kicked in the head. I slept a lot those first few days. Whenever possible, I repeated my sleeping limbs concerns to any medical professional in the room. All they could do was nod sympathetically and repeat that it was normal after an injury like mine.
I sustained a traumatic brain injury (TBI) on Black Friday, 2016. We had had Thanksgiving dinner, left our 3- and 4-year-old boys with my in-laws, and headed for cow camp. After an uneventful gather, Sam and I headed to the round corral to work my filly. She was quiet but had been laid off all summer due to hoof abscesses. A lack of confidence, or maybe God, had kept me from riding this filly alone.
Things unfolded quickly, or so I’m told. The horse hopped one way, my hind end hanging off her left side. I centered myself, got her head up, turned her around and she started hopping again. I roped up (grabbing my rope which was coiled and tied to the right fork of my saddle) in a desperate attempt to ride. I fell off her right side, was kicked above my right temple, and tore the cartilage in my right shoulder socket.
I spent two days in ICU, four in the neuro wing, and a month at my in-laws. They helped care for my toddlers and drove me to physical therapy. I learned about sleep patterns, battled speech concerns, and did all the exercises recommended by my occupational therapist.
Every day was a battle to manage pain and complete a self-compiled recovery checklist: walking, journaling, researching potential therapies, and doing Christmas crafts with my kids.
Nights were filled with exhaustion, insomnia, and Restless Leg Syndrome. The boys and I finally moved home on Christmas Eve. There, I had to navigate stairs, relearn to drive, and climb on a horse again.
Sam held Joey, our old campaigner (cowboy-speak for been there, done that ranch horse), as I climbed on a stool, then into the saddle, almost in tears.
- Where was the woman who bailed off her horse at a moment’s notice to tail-down a calf?
- Where was the woman that stepped off and on her horse all day to work broken-down feedlot gates?
- Where was the courageous cowboy I had fought so hard to be?
Getting on that horse was one of the most physically and emotionally painful moments of my life. Worse yet, my husband and boys had front row seats to my brokenness. I was losing faith in myself, hope of recovery, and resigned to living a lesser life than I desired. Until I sat on that saint of a horse, I truly believed I’d never ride again. That excruciating climb proved that maybe, just maybe, I would live life again.
That was the coldest winter the Great Basin had experienced in years, with most days seeing 20 to 30 degrees colder than average. Several times a week, Sam would come home, saddle a horse, and give me riding lessons. I had to relearn every combination of cues. These are cues we riders take for granted. I would have to tell my left hand to go here, or my right foot to go there. Sam needed to tell me when my limbs hadn’t moved or hadn’t moved enough.
The TBI caused mental and physical exhaustion, making those short lessons the only thing I might accomplish in a day. My shoulder injury prevented me from saddling and unsaddling, so Sam had to do that. He took over many domestic and parenting duties.
All so I could have a few minutes to ride.
Today, I am back to riding and roping but lack the confidence, finesse, and endurance I had before.
As more folks hear about my experience, I’m often asked about helmets. Did I wear one then? Do I wear one now? Do I require my children to wear them? Would a helmet have prevented my injury?
In fact, the medical team told me a helmet would not have prevented my TBI. I do not wear helmets, nor do I require my kids to wear them because of the disrupted balance and false sense of security I feel they provide. Ultimately though, I view this heated debate as a decision each person should make for themselves without the fear of social shaming my husband and I have experienced.
My dream is still cowboying. Instead of riding colts, I work to become worthy of my bridle horse counterparts. As a result of my new handicaps, I’ve become a better horseman and stockman. And, as much as it hurts my pride, I remember that God gave me a story and a business calling, to help others.
If you, or someone you know has a TBI or is a caretaker for someone with one, please reach out to me. I have been overwhelmed by the number followers who have battled brain injuries on their own. A strong community has been my greatest gift during my quest back to a cowboying life.