Amber Dorn walks through a group of young women crowded around a well-worn picnic table. Behind them, a single eye peers out from a barred window in the adjacent barn, where the College of Charleston keeps its equestrian team’s horses. The dapple gray horse watches intently, softy blowing through its lips, as the women talk and laugh.
Confidently, but gently, Dorn, who is team captain, directs the women, all members of the varsity equestrian team, to prepare another group of five horses for the next wave of freshman tryouts. As instructed, the women fan out to water, hose down, graze or bridle one of the selected ponies.
The world of competitive horseback riding is an individual sport by nature. Just a rider and her horse. Being part of an equestrian team is really about working together to care for the horses – and each other.
“It goes back to teamwork,” says Dorn. “Everybody’s got to do their part.”
But in a quiet moment on this muggy, late-August morning at Storybook Farm (Cougars Equestrian Coach Bob Story’s riding facility about 12 miles south of campus), Dorn lets her mind wander to which of the team’s horses she would want to ride (if she could). She’s a little more picky than she used to be. She can’t afford to hop on an unpredictable animal.
Amid a backdrop of chirping birds, buzzing cicadas and the periodic clop, clop, clop of hooves, she ponders the idiosyncrasies of the team’s more than 20 horses, all of which are donated. Marty won’t enter a stall from the left. Star doesn’t like to get sprayed with fly spray. You can’t cut Shaman’s whiskers because he’s blind in one eye and uses them like feelers. And you really shouldn’t use ear plugs with Shaman either, because he gets a little worried if he can’t hear what’s going on around him.
Then there’s Tia. The graceful brown horse is one of Dorn’s favorites. She’s forgiving of rider errors, and knows how to cover for her driver when she makes a wrong turn.
“She was a superstar athlete and then she got injured … and was never quite the same,” says Dorn, her voice trailing off.
She adds, “There are some horses I wouldn’t feel super comfortable on, just because I have to worry about my own stuff.”
Before March 13, 2016, Dorn’s own stuff never crossed her mind. She didn’t have stuff. A horse’s mood or proclivity toward certain behaviors wasn’t something she really considered.
After March 13, 2016, things were different. The reason: On that mild Sunday afternoon, Dorn suffered life-threatening injuries during a noncollegiate horse show in Thermal, Calif., when she was thrown from the horse she was riding. The then 21-year-old sustained a traumatic brain injury, nerve damage to her face and bilateral broken collarbones, among other injuries. Two days later, she suffered a stroke.
Her life, like Tia’s, has never been quite the same.
It was a horrible scene, says Dorn’s mother, Heidi Eddy-Dorn.
“Just watching all of that, I still have a lot of PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder]. It was very, very traumatic for me.”
March 13, 2016, was the day before classes were set to resume at the College following spring break. Dorn was squeezing in a final day of competition at the HITS Desert Circuit in Southern California before heading back to Charleston on the red-eye later that night.
But that’s not how the day played out.
After successfully completing the first round of the Low Adult Amateur Jumper Classic, Dorn could have stayed in the ring and immediately finished her second round. Instead, she opted to come out and collect herself and her horse, Vern, a chestnut-colored equine with a white diamond in the center of his forehead.
Nothing seemed amiss three hours later when Vern and Dorn headed back into the ring. Vern was calm. Dorn was steely eyed and focused on having a clean round.
She doesn’t know for sure which jump it was where things went wrong. But they did.
“I, with my body, asked the horse to leave the ground, but he was too far away from the jump to be able to make it over,” Dorn recalls.
Her memories of the accident, and the moments leading up to it, are blurry at best. Dorn has no recollection of the immediate aftermath. She doesn’t remember the combat Marine who jumped the fence to render aid as she lay face down in the dirt, blood pooling from a horrendous gash at the base of her head. She doesn’t remember the ambulance ride through the desert to a helipad. And she doesn’t remember being airlifted to the nearest hospital.