Two weeks in the hospital with a broken pelvis would be enough to put most athletes out of commission for a year, let alone a season. American eventer Alexandra (Allie) Knowles, however, saw the daunting process of her recovery and return to sport not as an insurmountable mountain, but as a series of small, scalable obstacles—each one bringing her closer to her end-goal.

The Kentucky- and Ocala-based rider was injured in a rotational fall on cross-country aboard the horse, FE Crosby, at the CIC2* at Red Hills International in March. She says the support of her friends, family, and team—including owners Jim and Madeline O’Brien; her longtime coach, Buck Davidson; and her four-star mount of nearly four years, Sound Prospect—made all the difference in her recovery. Within three months, Allie made a triumphant return to competition aboard “Sounder”, finishing second on their dressage score in the Preliminary division at the Plantation Field Horse Trials in Unionville, Pennsylvania last month. 

This weekend, Allie and Sounder will check the next box on their rehabilitation to-do list: the Great Meadow International FEI Nations Cup CICO3* event in the Plains, Virginia. Here, in her own words, Allie shares how she’s made the long journey back to the place where she’s always meant to be.

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This is my first real injury, so a few people that have had similar things said it would be more of a mental battle than a physical one. You’re kind of in your own little world in the hospital—the rest of the world isn’t even happening. It was when I left the hospital when it all really hit me. Like, Oh my gosh, everyone is out there doing all these things, and I can’t do anything. 

I kind of took that battle on within myself to stay positive, and to feel like I was making progress, even when it feels like some days, you aren’t making any progress at all.

I’m really into fitness and going to the gym anyway, so I set small goals for myself to make sure that I had something to work for, because obviously, rehab isn’t that easy; you’re painful and you’re sore. I came into this injury quite fit—I think as fit as I’ve ever been—and that made it easier for me to get back into riding because I had a really strong baseline.

Instead of being bogged down by all the things I couldn’t do, I tried to meet small goals right away: getting off the walker by six weeks, or getting back on a horse in two months, or whatever it was. That helped to turn my perspective around.

I think the surgeon that did my pelvis surgery up in Louisville, Kentucky, had the sense that I was going to be driven all on my own, and that I would do what I thought felt right. He said, “You’re an athlete and you know your body, so I don’t want to add physical therapy into the mix because you’re already going to be doing too much.”

“More than anything, it’s about feeling normal—not to feel better or weaker than I did before, but just, Okay, I remember how to do this. I can do this.”

I have a personal trainer, Tony Sandoval, who I’d been working with for several months before I went to Ocala this winter. When I came back, I let him know what the injury was, and he did a whole lot of research about what I needed to do to stabilize my pelvis, and what needed to be stretched out more, etc. He was very specific when I came back to the gym, and we started out very, very slowly. It was painful, almost, feeling like I was doing nothing, but in quite a short time, we’ve come back to everything I was doing before, minus some jumping exercises.

The trainer in the gym, and my riding trainer, Buck; they have made the biggest difference in my ability to recover like I have.

In my mind, I wanted to get back on a horse as soon as Rolex 2017 was over. My first choice was Sounder, because he’s the safest and I know him the best. My plan was to get on and just walk him and see how it feels, and go from there. But when I actually got on, it felt totally normal. Strangely enough, nothing about riding has felt different—there was definitely a weakness in my muscles and balance—but nothing that was a problem with my pelvis. After walking, I tried trotting, and then I tried cantering, and it all felt very normal.

My doctor had given me loose guidelines for getting back on the horse, and I did follow those. He wasn’t actually concerned about my riding, he was concerned about my risk of falling off again.

I took this injury very seriously, and sometimes, it might seem like from the outside that I didn’t, but I got the go-ahead from my doctor each time I rode, and before the first time I competed. That way, I had a clear conscience and an okay frame of mind. It’s hard enough going out and doing all the things I’m doing right now, but to do them and know that my doctor was not behind it, that would have been too big of a hurdle for me to get over. To know that if my horse tripped and fell, I wouldn’t be okay—that wasn’t worth the risk to me.

My doctor told me, “Yes, you can compete. I don’t love it, it seems very fast, but the pelvis is healed enough and if you were to fall off, to the best of my knowledge, it would probably stay together.”

That had to be good enough for us. Otherwise, we’d be waiting around forever.

Was I going to feel more timid than before? Was it going to feel normal?

Buck [Davidson] knows me very well, so he does an excellent job getting in my head and knowing what to do for my head, more than anything else. The first time I rode with him after the fall, there was a lot more psychology used to make me feel normal. More than anything, it’s about feeling normal—not to feel better or weaker than I did before, but just, Okay, I remember how to do this. I can do this.

Buck would take the time to talk with me, and he’d say things like, “This is how I felt when I got hurt, and you’re doing better than what was expected, so stop putting pressure on yourself. Stop feeling like you can’t do X, Y, and Z three months after your fall.”

He’d tell me that if my body feels weak or tired, I have to listen to that, and not feel like I have to do 30 extra minutes, or whatever, just because that’s what I would have done before the fall. That’s wasn’t going to help me now.

It was also invaluable to have a horse like Sounder to come back on. I have full trust in him to essentially take care of me. I make a mistake, and I know what he’s going to do; I do it right, or I do it wrong, and I know what he’s going to do. Having that security allows you to focus on all the other things instead of wondering what your horse is going to do.

Sounder has really helped my confidence, which is why I only competed him in the first event. I felt like I could have ridden three or four, but it was important to me and important to my team—my coach, my owners, everyone—that we take the safest approach. Once I competed Sounder, I would know how nervous I was going to be going out on cross-country. Was I going to feel more timid than before? Was it going to feel normal?

Honestly, I wasn’t overly concerned about the first event back, because it was Preliminary, and for all intents and purposes, on a normal day, I would never be that worried. When I was going into the cross-country warm-up, though, I realized I was totally nervous, and that did surprise me. I didn’t feel it tacking up, I didn’t feel it the day before. When I saw the cross-country going, though, that’s when it hit me.

But then, I started walking toward the start box, and Sounder started doing all these normal, neurotic tics that he has—trying to spin around and not go in—and that immediately made me feel better. Because my horse was amped up and didn’t want to go in the start box, I knew we were ready.

When I left the box, it just felt normal—I was already doing it.

I had a lot of those questions answered that weekend at Plantation Field, so the following weekend, when I rode five horses at another event, I kind of knew what to expect. There’s just something psychological about sitting in a good place on every horse going into cross-country, and there was definitely more pressure at that event that I had to put aside. I told myself, You are not here to win, you are here to do this cross-country, and to help yourself get better and get stronger.

I tried to compartmentalize some of those different feelings and nerves that I was having, and to ask myself, Was I feeling them because I was winning the event, or because of my injury? I really tried to break down the day and each horse’s performances, and that helped me get through it when it could have been kind of overwhelming.

“Sounder started doing all these normal, neurotic tics that he has…and that immediately made me feel better. Because my horse was amped up and didn’t want to go in the start box, I knew we were ready.”

Going into this weekend, I am trying again to break this event down so it doesn’t feel like too big a task. There’s no better event to get back to the three-star level than Great Meadow—the footing and the courses are perfect, the venue is beautiful, and the people are friendly.

I’m going to concentrate on what I know about my horse and trust the training and trust our partnership, and not worry about what I haven’t done in a long time. Buck has really helped to alleviate that pressure, and it was a perfect prep, riding with him before my last two events. I decided to do the same thing before Great Meadow, so I came up a couple of days early and had lessons with him. I do think that this is going to be another hurdle to get over, but I can’t imagine, for anybody else, that these feelings wouldn’t be normal—there’s no way to get rid of them other than to just do it.  It’s just another box to check, and then I can move a little bit further.

I kind of assumed when I was in the hospital that I was going to be tough enough to get through this and to get past it. I’m glad that I proved to myself that I am. I’m doing what I set out to do.

You can watch the live stream of the Great Meadow International (July 7-9) on the USEF Network and get behind-the-scenes coverage on the USEF Network’s FacebookTwitter, and Instagram accounts. To learn more about USA Eventing, visit their Facebook page. 

-As told to Nina Fedrizzi. Photo gallery by Shannon Brinkman. Featured image by Taylor Pence.