GREENFIELD — If Paige Gardner was nervous heading into the show arena, you’d never have known it.
Seated comfortably atop her quarter horse, Sugar, the young 4-H’er entered the show ring this week to practice her skills with the confidence of a seasoned competitor, not one forced to sit on the sidelines last year with an injury.
Paige, 12, suffered a skull fracture last summer that forced her to withdraw from the Horse & Pony Show. This year, she’s ready to make a comeback.
The Hancock County 4-H Fair kicked off Friday, but the Horse & Pony Show, scheduled for the evening, was postponed after Thursday night’s storm left standing water in the Multipurpose Arena. The show was expected to kick off this morning.
It was days before the start of the fair last summer when Paige and a friend headed out to the barn for a ride on Sugar. Paige knew she was supposed to wait for a helping hand from an adult, but she was feeling impatient and grabbed a 5-gallon bucket to use as a stepping stool. Her friend made it onto Sugar’s back without a problem, but just as Paige started to hoist herself up, the bucket slipped, and Paige went crashing to the ground.
She struck her head against the concrete floor, and her ear began gushing blood. The impact fractured her skull on the right side of her head near her ear.
The injury wasn’t life-threatening, but it forced her to sit out of the sport she loves.
Keeping Paige off horseback for the 12 weeks that followed the accident was a challenge, her mother, Paula Gardner, said.
“…It just broke my heart to tell her no,” Gardner said, “because she loves it, and she’s so good at it.”
Paige said she couldn’t wait to get back in the saddle.
“I was ready to get back on,” she said. “It was different (not riding). I wasn’t used to it.”
Today, Paige is happy as ever to be back on her horse and able to compete.
Paige competes in barrel-racing and pole-bending, two high-speed events that would put even the most experienced rider’s mother on edge.
“She seems so little, and it’s hard to imagine her having control of such a large animal,” Gardner said.
A typical tween, Paige flippantly dismisses her mother’s concern.
“She gets nervous over my riding a bicycle,” she said.
Today, at 5-foot-5-inches tall, Paige doesn’t need the help of a bucket to hop up on Sugar. But Gardner says the fall changed her daughter. She’s more cautious than she used to be.
“I think it probably gave her a little more respect for the whole sport,” she said.
Her parents support her passion, but the worry still creeps up on occasion.
“It’s always nerve-wracking for me, even before she got hurt,” her father, Bill Gardner, said. “It still bothers me. It always has.”
Paula Gardner said she always wanted a horse, growing up, but her father was terrified of them and wouldn’t allow her to have one. So when her daughter showed interest in riding, she encouraged her.
“She’s living my dream,” she said. “She likes it so much, and she’s just a natural.”
The Gardners say they never considered telling Paige to abandon her hobby.
(Not that the 12-year-old spitfire would have taken no for an answer anyway.)
When it came to getting back to her training, Paige said she wasn’t nervous at all.
She hasn’t missed a beat.
“It’s nothing,” she said. “It’s like I never had a fall before.”