Written by: Susan Stafford-Pooley
The pro rider speaks on injury and recovery from concussions.
On the surface, show jumping athlete and coach Ainsley Vince appears to have it all: a beautiful farm in Burlington, ON, housing her business Linden Ridge Ltd., 18 of her own, family’s and clients’ horses with room to expand, and a new indoor arena under construction which will create a truly all-season facility. On the show circuit she is campaigning a talented, sweet, 14-year-old grey Westfalian mare with the fitting name Darling.
But every day is a battle for Ainsley, who has suffered a number of injuries during her long and successful riding career, which has seen her represent Canada at the 2003 and 2004 World Cup Finals, win the Canadian Show Jumping Championships twice with Catch 22 (2001, 2002), and be named Ontario Hunter Jumper Association Jumper Trainer of the Year in 2010, 2011 and 2012. She is also one of the few Canadian Medal final winners to go on and coach a winner.
Three serious concussions have left her facing some difficult challenges and required her to put some systems into place so that her business and livelihood wouldn’t suffer.
Ainsley experienced her first concussion when she was just 10 years old. “Oddly enough, it was the day that I was trying my very first pony to buy,” she says, adding that the riding ring in which she did her test ride had a worn-down trench near the rail. “The pony didn’t do lead changes yet and I went into the corner on the wrong lead and up on the bank and fell over. I was wearing a helmet. That was concussion number one.
“The second big one I had was in Florida when I was in my early twenties. I was riding a horse for a friend of mine because he wanted to make a video for marketing purposes. I rode the horse for five minutes, then got off and was walking out of the warm-up ring. I knew better than to stand right behind the horse, but apparently the groom turned the horse and put the cooler over its back at the same time. The horse double-barrel fired and caught me an inch on either side of my spine and sent me flying. They said the only thing that saved me was that I was small, so I just flew forward. I had a dual whiplash concussion, back and front, and a purple horseshoe [mark] on my back for a year.”
Ainsley says it took a while to remember things after that incident and she had to take a short break from riding. “When I got kicked in Florida, I have a five-second flash of memory; I had been kicked forward and was on my hands and knees on the ground, gasping for air and not being able to breathe. That’s the only thing I remember – not that day, not riding the horse.”
Concussion number three – the most serious one – happened in 2015. “I was schooling a client’s horse. The horse was heading to a water jump and fell down and took me with it. I was airlifted to Sunnybrook Hospital [in Toronto] and was in a coma for three days. Then I was in a wheelchair, then I was on a walker. I went to so many hospitals and so many [rehab] programs.
“I really don’t remember being in a wheelchair, just a couple of flashes here and there. It’s like I’ve lost the last ten years.”
The realization that there was a chance she may never be able to ride or compete again came as a blow – but it also made her twice as determined to get back in the saddle. “[In 2016] I was in Toronto Rehab hospital when I realized it was an Olympic year. I know that I had been on track with everything before the accident – I’ve seen videos and results – but now I couldn’t even ride.” At the hospital she was admonished to quit riding and find a new career, even though none of her injuries have ever been directly caused by jumping fences. “I’ve spent my entire life working towards this … I can’t even imagine doing anything else. Riding is a risk, and we all know that.”
She still suffers from occasional fatigue, which is very common following head injuries. “I get really tired at the end of the day. It’s ridiculous. My bedtime is nine o’clock!” says Ainsley. “For the first two years after it happened, they said the number one thing is that you get a lot of exercise and [blood] circulation, and that you sleep. Those are the main healing factors. If I don’t get eight hours of sleep, I feel it the next day.”
Ainsley’s world now revolves around her indispensable day-timer to keep track of appointments and the myriad demands of life. “I make a thousand notes a day; it’s been very important.”
Her remarkable recovery has understandably had its ups and downs. “I know I’ve been going through a really tough time, but I don’t know if it’s necessarily defined as depression, which is really common with head injuries. They say the more you recover, the better you get and the more you realize everything going on around you. But it’s a double-edged sword; the more you realize everything going on around you, the more depressed you become because you realize that everything in your life has become harder.”
While Ainsley admits after her last accident there had been some rather opportunistic characters circling her business like vultures, “there have also been unbelievable people and friends through this whole thing who have been so loyal and so helpful. My sister [Courtney], God bless her, saved me a million times over. She had to come back to Canada for shoulder surgery around the time this happened, so she came in and took over the business and managed all the clients. Plus she recruited Hallie Buttenweiser to help school the horses while we were recuperating. Courtney moved all her horses from Europe and everybody loves her; she’s been phenomenal.”
Ainsley was overwhelmed by the generosity and kindness of peers and friends during the difficult times. “Eric Lamaze called me regularly to check up on me; Beth Underhill walked our dogs so that my family could spend more time with me; Marnie von Shalburg, who had been through similar experiences, was a great source of support and inspiration. Amy Millar helped me when I first started back showing. Jen and Yann Candele, Michele Grubb, Diane Landreville, and Sue Pritchard have all been super kind and supportive. They all have respect and eternal gratitude from myself and those around me.”
Back in the saddle, Linden Ridge is ramping up business. “We have a lot to offer,” says Ainsley. “We just started building an indoor arena so that we can have a year-round facility, which has been a huge undertaking. Between Courtney and I, we have a lot of time and handle everybody’s needs, and then some. We have similar backgrounds in that we’ve both done the hunters and the jumpers and the equitation. Courtney has years of experience in Europe, working with top professionals there. I was fortunate to work for Laura Kraut for a year and spent a lot of time in the US, as well as working and training with Eric Lamaze. We are blessed to also have a really wonderful group of clients and staff who stuck with us through difficult moments and transitions.”
Looking ahead, Ainsley plans to show Darling locally this summer. She has been paired with the mare since 2011, and realizes that no matter what is happening in one’s life, the clock is always ticking. “She’s the bravest, kindest, sweetest animal. Unfortunately, time marches on and that part I’m really sad about. I have this horse who’s absolutely wonderful and it’s not her fault she missed two years.”
While injuries are common in equestrian sport, the possible long-term neuropathological consequences associated with multiple concussions, including chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), require Ainsley to be extremely careful each time she mounts up. Throughout her riding career she has always worn a helmet, but has recently switched to the GPA brand. “I did a lot of research before I came back to riding and theirs looked by far to be the safest,” she explains. “It’s never 100 per cent, but you have to try to do everything you possibly can.”
She adds, “I’m also very careful about which horses I get on and under what circumstances. If it’s a cold, windy day and the horse is being silly with the rider, that’s not the one I’m getting on.
“The biggest lesson I learned through all of this is that the management of horses I ride is something I want to keep in-house. I want the horses to be animals that I know and that are in my program. I want to know first-hand what they’ve been doing and that they’re properly prepared for competitions or whatever tasks are at hand. I could have died that day; I should have died that day. There are a lot more noble causes in life to die for than that.”
Ainsley appreciates the progress she continues to make and the opportunities which she hopes will continue to come her way. “I was in a really good place before this happened, but literally in the snap of a finger, things can be gone.”