EDITOR”S NOTE: This is the first in a two-part series about a dedicated horse woman who would not let a horrendous injury keep her or her beloved horse from beating the odds.
CHICO — As she regained consciousness after 12 hours of surgery, Kelly Staley had two questions: “Am I going to be able to walk again?” and “Am I going to be able to ride again?”
Staley is the superintendent of the Chico Unified School District. Now 50, she has been “horse crazy” from the time she was in single digits. By the time she was about 9, she was winning grand championships in county fair horse shows.
Her maternal grandfather, Curtis Halsey, one of the towering figures in her life, gave Staley her first horse, a 38-year-old former pack horse, when she was 6.
That horse “would do nothing but walk.” Staley said she “and all of these kids would get on and she would pack us all over the mountain.
“If we tried to get her to trot or — God forbid — gallop, she would buck us off and wait until we got back on. Talk about the perfect baby-sitter; you couldn”t go wrong.”
The “horse crazy” girl grew into a woman who loves the animals with an amazing devotion.
Without a doubt, her best equine friend is a quarterhorse named Baylor.
“This particular horse has been very, very, very special for a lot of reasons. Our paths have been kind of parallel.”
“I got him when he was a weanling. He was 5 months old and I raised him up from a baby.”
Baylor is named for Baylor University in Waco, Texas. As a professional educator, Staley names all of her horses for major universities, which also makes it easy to get T-shirts with the horses” names on them.
“He is a little tiny bit over 17 hands a high. He”s a big boy,” said Staley.
Something about this bay quarterhorse touched Staley”s heart from the beginning. She did all the training.
She had just reached the point when Baylor was fully trained and Staley was jumping him over a six-foot pipe rail fence. The big bay caught his foreleg on something and part of his leg was “just completely skinned, like you would skin a deer.”
Despite the gaping wound, “He never took a lame step.” Skin grafts were necessary to repair the wound. By his third year, “he was coming along and looking really good.”
Kelly had been showing horses in the American Quarter Horse Association”s “novice” category. She competed in “all-around, show English,” where the animal is required to move in a particular pattern. The judges look at the way it moves and conforms to “type.”
She also competes in “equitation,” where the rider is being judged on his or her form, moving in perfect unison with the animal.
Before Baylor was quite ready to compete in the big leagues, he suffered another setback when he got a bone chip in his hock, which is sort of the rear knee joint of the horse.
“We had to go to UC Davis and they did surgery and took the chip,” said Staley.
About six months later, Baylor was again getting close to top form but this time his mistress suffered an injury that threatened to take riding — and even walking — out her life forever.
It was June of 2009 and Staley took a 3-year-old filly named Nova to the Shasta County Fair to let a friend compete with the animal.
Nova, short for Villanova University, a 1,000-pound horse, had not been doing well at the fair and Staley brought her home to see if she could get the animal in line.
Staley had been running Nova through a drill where the animal would step over a pole lying on the ground.
Something, Staley isn”t sure what, spooked the young horse and Nova reared straight up on her hind legs.
“I probably should have dismounted at that point, but clearly I wasn”t thinking that fast.”
The terrified horse toppled onto her back, crushing Staley between the saddle and the ground and in the process shattering both of the woman”s hips.
“I remember laying there and saying, ”Hands? Yes can I move my hands. Can I move my feet? All right.””
Her feet moved but the pain was excruciating.
Staley knew she was hurt but at some level she didn”t comprehend the extent of the damage. She just wanted to be loaded into the back of a pickup and be taken to the hospital with “no fuss.”
“Nope, nope. Here came an ambulance and the fire truck,” and the local press.
Doctors at Enloe Medical Center determined, “This is beyond what we can do.” Staley was loaded into a helicopter and flown to UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento.
Memories of her time in the Davis emergency room are fragmented. She recalls being strapped to a backboard covered in sand that was beginning to grind into her skin.
She remembers awakening to find a pair of police officers standing next to her door.
She told them, “Whatever I did, I don”t remember it.”
The officers responded, “Oh, we are just here to make sure the guy in the bed next to you stays where he is supposed to because he just shot somebody.”
Staley began to recognize the seriousness of her situation.
“I don”t think they (the UC doctors) knew if they were going to be able to put Humpty-Dumpty back together again.”
It was about this point that this “funky, tiny” explosion of energy came into her room
“I thought she was candy striper when she first came into my room. I soon learned she wasn”t.”
The young-looking woman was Dr. Tania Ferguson, an orthopedic trauma surgeon with a specialty in hip and pelvic injuries. Ferguson, according to Staley, was one of 10 surgeons in the country capable of doing the operation she needed.
After the 12-hour operation, Staley posed her two questions to Ferguson.
“Am I going to be able to walk again?”
“Yeah, you are going to be able to walk again,” replied the doctor.
“Am I going to be able to ride again?”
This time the surgeon was a little more cautious.
“You know it will be at least a year, and you are going to have to get back into this slowly.”
Then Staley added one more question. “Am I going to be able to ski again?”
The doctor was right about the walking and riding but wrong about the skiing.
Reach Roger H. Aylworth at 896-7762, firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @RogerAylworth.