After losing her leg in a motorcycle crash, a Hurley resident was determined to ride her horse again.
“I’m an adventurous kind of person,” Linda Neu says cheerfully, explaining why she took up motorcycle riding after 16 years of owning horses. She later adds that she was also grieving over the death from kidney failure of one of her beloved horses, Coco. “I was angry. I had to do something different.”
It’s a chilly spring day in Hurley, where three horses are lazing in the sun outside the barn, ears twitching as they listen to our voices. Neu’s 22-year-old mare, Shyla, is a tall bay red roan quarter horse she bought at the age of two and a half, when two previous owners had given her up as unmanageable. Holly, a chestnut, belonging to Neu’s sister, is mild-mannered, an easy ride. Dory has ambled to the paddock for a drink of water after grazing on the lawn. “She’s 32, and she just walks,” says Neu, “so she’s free-range.”
The property is at the end of a rural road, so Dory is safe wandering loose, She never goes far from the barn. Neu’s son-in-law, Sloan Hoffstatter, bought the little mare for his daughter at an auction, bidding against a kill shelter seeking meat for dog food. Four years ago, Dory almost had to be put down because of infections under her teeth. To save her, a vet administered massive doses of antibiotics, while Neu and Hoffstatter hand-fed the horse daily with warm oat mash.
Neu has ridden over from the house on a four-wheeler, her dog Simon running alongside. Now she stands with a cane handy as she tells the story of her accident. “My boyfriend and I bought motorcycles and took a safety course to learn how to ride,” she says. “The third time we went out, we were riding on Route 32, up past the old game farm, and we were going around a long curve. All I can figure is that I crossed riding a motorcycle with riding a horse. Instead of turning my upper body and hand, I was trying to turn with my hips, the way you turn a horse. And the bike just wouldn’t turn.”
Neu’s leg was crushed against the side of an oncoming car, and she was flung through the air. “My mother had been dead for 15 years, and I saw her,” Neu says. “She appeared on a red frame bicycle, riding in front, and I was in back.”
Neu’s boyfriend, George Washburn, ran to where she lay on the ground. “Your eyes were open, but you weren’t there,” he told her later, In the ambulance, on the way to the field where the helicopter would land to airlift Neu to Albany Medical Center, the EMTs did not think she was going to make ot.
“When I woke up, my family was there at the foot of the bed, trying to keep me from noticing that my leg had been amputated,” she says. “But I was doing hand signals that showed I knew it was gone.” Then she fell back asleep. After three days, when she finally regained consciousness for more than a few minutes and the tube was removed from her throat, Neu’s first words were: “I want a margarita, and I will be back on my horse.”
Even more life-threatening than the mid-thigh amputation of the right leg, her pelvis had been shattered, along with muscles and blood vessels within. She wasn’t allowed to put any pressure on the left leg, to protect the healing of her pelvic area, so she had to use her arms to move her body.
Washburn obtained a high-tech wheelchair that could navigate outdoors. “The day I returned from the hospital,” Neu recalls, “I rode the wheelchair out to the horses to feed them hay and grain. My priority was to care for them. I’d put Shyla on a lead rope, and she’d walk along next to the wheelchair.” Meanwhile, her granddaughters, Olivia and Rosebud, who live next door, were riding the horses to keep them in shape.
Six months after the accident, Neu received a prosthetic leg, enabling her to get around with a walker. She began to groom the horses. One day, Shyla spooked at something and knocked Neu over. A friend, trainer Donna Milby, helped work with Shyla so she wouldn’t startle as easily. They gradually accustomed her to being tapped and stroked with a cane and to hearing the cane clatter to the ground.
Shyla also had to get used to the changes in her owner. “She would smell my leg, and then she’d exhale, like she was saying, Okay, it’s Mom. She’d missed the interaction with me. I had a strong bond with the horses.”
As a kid growing up in Hyde Park, Neu liked to climb onto a neighbor’s horse when the owner wasn’t home. She’d jump off before he returned. When she and her sister, another Donna, had horses of their own, they would ride in cow-herding competitions at Clinton Corners. Sometimes they’d trailer up to West Kill and ride through the woods to the fire tower. Neu even took Shyla camping. Although the horse was high-strung, Neu said, “We clicked. I knew what she was thinking, and she knew what I was thinking.”
Following the accident, Neu soon became bored with her regular sessions of physical therapy and quit. “I got the basics of P.T., but I was getting better therapy with the horses. At the barn, I was moving, bending, lifting hay, cleaning hooves.” She would tie P.T. stretch bands to the paddock gate to do exercises for rebuilding muscles in her core.
By then, the wheelchair had been replaced by a four-wheeled all-terrain vehicle. “I figured, if I can stay on a four-wheeler in the woods, I can stay on a horse. I waited until my family was away, and I went out by myself.” After proving her point, she began to work with Milby, the trainer, to prepare herself and Shyla for riding.
It took a team to get Neu back in the saddle. Having worked at Bread Alone for 21 years, she knows a lot of people. Her customers and Facebook friends put together a GoFundMe page and raised $40,000 for her rehabilitation. One customer, filmmaker Tracy Christian, dived into creating The Ride (coming out this year), a short documentary about Linda’s return to riding. The process of filming helped her deal with emotions surrounding the accident and the rigors of recovery.
An old friend, Jack Skerritt, offered to build her a mounting deck with bars she could grab while easing onto the horse. Milby taught Shyla to approach the platform and stand still for the mounting process. “She had to get used to the difference in my body weight and balance,” said Neu.
A year after the accident, she started riding. When mounting, she has to keep her prosthetic leg straight while lifting it over the horse’s back. Then, using an app on her phone, which hangs on a string around her neck, she activates a microprocessor in the leg that is programmed to keep the knee and ankle at the correct angles for sitting in the saddle.
She’s learned to rely on her hips, rather than using her legs and feet, to give the horse cues for movement. Shyla has learned to respond to the new patterns. Neu’s daughter Hannah used rope fencing to create a track in the paddock, so Linda could ride safely as she worked to regain her balance.
Last fall, she went with her sister and Milby on a ten-day camping trip in the Adirondacks, riding the trails on horseback.
Other parts of Neu’s life are coming back too. Washburn, who restores classic cars, installed a left-foot gas pedal in her truck. She uses a tractor to clean and clear the paddock, with the help of a hand brake installed by a friend, Sasha Ivanov. Neu’s daughter, Kayleigh, took her kayaking last year at Wilson State Park, and helped her pick out a tricycle so she can ride on rail trails. In the last month, seven-year-old granddaughter Rosebud has occasionally grabbed the cane, encouraging Neu to walk a few steps with no external support.
Generous as her family and friends have been, Neu’s animals have provided indispensable support. “My horse Shyla and my dog Simon are my inspiration and motivation,” she says. “They continue to be my greatest healers.”