Lellie Ward’s New Focusby Pam Gleason
“You never know what is going to happen in the horse business,” says Lellie Ward, who owns and runs Paradise Farm in Aiken. Paradise Farm is a 109-acre training and eventing facility on the east side of town. Lellie herself has an impressive background in all aspects of horsemanship, but especially in eventing. A serious competitor for over 40 years, she was at the top of the game for more than 20, competing in the Rolex Kentucky Three Day Event four times on three different horses.
She was also a serious contender for the U.S. Olympic team four times, trained ten horses from their first events to the Advanced level, and sold horses on to some of the best riders in the world. In addition, she is an insightful and experienced instructor who holds a USEA Level III teaching certificate as well as certificates from Germany and Great Britain. Her recognized and schooling events in Aiken are known for being well-run, well-organized and well-attended.
For 40 years, Lellie saw herself primarily as a rider, a competitor and a horse trainer. “I centered my whole life around gallops, and how long I would trot and how many days of the week I was going to jump,” she says. “Then there was scheduling and driving all over the country to compete. It was all-consuming.”
But all of that changed in a split second in early 2012.
“It was 4:30 p.m. on January 31st,” she says. “I was simply walking in my ring on a lovely horse, a big Irish mare. She was a quiet horse, not flighty at all. I went to put her into the trot and I felt her bow up and I knew right away I was going to fall off and get hurt.”
Lellie landed straight down on her face, breaking three vertebrae in her neck and sustaining spinal cord damage. She also cut her face so badly she needed 76 stitches to repair it.
“I knew I had broken my neck right away,” she says. “When you have a fracture, it feels hot. I always describe it as a green, nauseous kind of a feeling. It’s always the same: not excruciatingly painful, but a combination of numbness and a dull ache. I lay there, and I did not try to move, but I made my brain go down to my toes to see if the channels could still work.”
Lellie had been planning to give a lesson after her ride, and when the horse she had been riding galloped back to the barn, her students came out and found her. They called 911, and an ambulance came and took her directly to the trauma unit in Augusta.
“You’re wheeled in on a gurney, and immediately, you are met at the door by about ten people who all have scissors in their hands and they just start cutting your clothes off,” says Lellie. “It’s not exactly how you would plan your day.”
But Lellie says that her first reaction was not to be frightened.
“I was so pissed off,” she says. “It was just two weeks before my horse trials. Fortunately I always get ready early, so the event was all set up physically – the jumps, the courses, the dressage rings, everything. It’s not like you can cancel the horse trials. Even if I die, God forbid, the event has to run. Running a horse trials is not a game!”
A plastic surgeon repaired Lellie’s face, and did such a good job that today she does not have any obvious scars. For her neck fracture, she was provided with a neck brace, which she wore for several months. The damage to her spinal cord initially caused her arms to curl up against her body. She had limited ability to use them, and parasthesia (nerve pain) that was excruciating.
“Give me a fracture any day,” she says. “This was your skin: Anything that would touch you, the lightest touch, would bring you to blackout level pain.”
Gradually, she got better. Her neck healed, and strength and mobility returned to her arms. The parasthesia diminished, and now she only feels the numbness and tingling in a couple of fingers on each hand. At her last doctor’s appointment, four months after the accident, they told her that she was going to be fine, and they released her.
“I did everything they told me to do in my rehab,” she says. “But the doctors were quite vague. No one ever told me that I shouldn’t ride again. If they had, I would never have gotten on a horse. But nobody would say that. No doctor told me not to ride. The doctor did tell me not to fall off.”
By the end of the summer of 2012, Lellie’s face had healed, her neck brace was off and she could use her arms again. She even sat on a few horses. But it would take much longer for her to heal mentally, and even longer for her business to return to health.
“The effect of the injury was that immediately I lost all my clients,” she says. “I went from being a professional rider and a teacher to being an invalid. I estimate that I lost about $80,000 in income. I spent that whole year not knowing what I was going to do. I was walking around in limbo.”
At the time of her injury, Lellie had about 16 horses in training, some of her own and the majority for other people. After the injury, the horses she had in training were gone, leaving her with a handful of her own personal horses. For a while, she was hiring people to come and ride them, but found that frustrating and not sustainable in the long run.
“People weren’t coming to me for lessons any more. I wanted to tell them ‘I’m just injured, I’m not dead.’ I didn’t know how I was going to pay the bills. I considered selling everything and getting out of horses, getting out of Aiken. And that was hard. This place was built on a dream. I love the farm. A big step for me was to realize I wasn’t going to go Advanced any more. And that was okay. I didn’t take that personally, and that was not hard to let go. But I was definitely depressed. There were lots of dark days. Your mind is terribly powerful. When you are a professional event rider, you have to ride that hard line and be very focused: there are no ‘what-ifs’, no loss of balance. When I didn’t have that any more, when I was unbalanced and I didn’t know what I was going to do in the morning, I was completely lost.”
Lellie, who describes herself as an “all-or-nothing” type of person, knew she would have to make some decisions. She realized that selling the farm was not really a viable option, considering the weakness in the real estate market. So she decided to shift her focus. Instead of basing her business on training horses, she would hold more events and competitions. She knew she wanted to ride again, but now, instead of focusing on advancing through the levels in eventing, she would dedicate herself to learning, riding for her own knowledge and enjoyment.
She had already started taking showjumping lessons with Daniel Geitner, who she says helped her immensely through her recovery and was instrumental in restoring her confidence. Then she called Shawna Harding and began studying dressage seriously.
“After my first 15 minutes of riding with Shawna, I was exhausted,” she says. “I almost had to pull up and say, ‘I don’t know if I can do this.’ It was so fascinating. The lessons with her were such hard work, but that’s where I thrive.
“As I started riding again, it definitely made me feel better about myself. When I wasn’t riding, I had lost a big part of who I was. Working with Shawna and Daniel brought me back. Yes, I was nervous, but little by little, I got better. The scariest things for me were getting on and off. You have to ride every day, work at it every day.”
Another significant event in Lellie’s recovery was a two-week trip she took away from Aiken with her mother, where she met people who did not know her before. “It was a life-turning thing,” she says. “Meeting new people who liked me and accepted me for who I was changed my attitude. It made me realize that there was nothing wrong with me: I was not broken.”
Returning to Paradise Farm reinvigorated, she started running monthly shows during the winter during Aiken’s high season for eventing. The shows were hugely successful.
“It was a great feeling,” she says. “It was that ‘up’ feeling. It was productive for me, for the riders and for the farm. I saw it as a way to bring Paradise Farm back up. And it has worked.”
Today, Lellie is teaching again, and says she would love to have more students. She is also organizing horse trials, hunter trials and combined tests. Paradise Farm offers competitions for all levels, as well as unlimited opportunities for trainers to come school their own horses or give lessons to their students at a horse show quality facility. There are several recognized shows each year, and a growing list of schooling shows. The farm itself is constantly being improved. This spring, Lellie is breaking ground on two large new arenas. She is also building a hunter-style bank. In the future, she even hopes to add Intermediate and Advanced level fences to her cross country course.
“I’m reorganizing my life,” says Lellie, who admits that she now spends more time in the office than on a horse. “I had such a wonderful response from Aiken in terms of sponsorship this year, and I am so grateful to all the riders for coming back to the farm. It really meant a lot to me, and gave me the desire to keep doing it. I’ve been to the bottom. Now I want to go back to the top. I don’t spend my days thinking why? I spend my days thinking how?
“Paradise Farm is such a special and unique piece of property,” she continues. “People can learn to do so much with their horses here. I want people to be able to come here and enjoy it, bring their own trainers if they want. I bought it and made it for me to train my own horses. Now I want people to know that it is here for everyone. “
This article is copyrighted and first appeared in The Aiken Horse. It is reprinted here by permission.