A Campus Shooting, a Riding Accident and One Cold February Night

The author capping with Old Dominion Hounds on Hunter’s Rest hireling John Barleycorn ten months after her accident

My riding accident coincided with the mass shooting at Michigan State University 

By Karen Hopper Usher

As my horse bolted, I knew I was going to get hurt. I tried to convince myself otherwise, arguing whole dockets with every gallop stride. 

You’re not going to fall. Don’t give up. Can you relax your body more and calm yourself and your horse? Ok, not that much, that was too much, you’re more out-of-balance now. You fool. You fool. You fool. Your kids don’t deserve a broken mother. This isn’t worth it.

I landed on my butt and back, mostly on the right side. I never passed out. I didn’t hit my head. But I couldn’t breathe. The wind was knocked out of me, I surmised. I told myself not to panic. I wasn’t going to suffocate. I just needed a second. I wiggled my fingers, I wiggled my toes, I kept trying to breathe. I didn’t have enough air to scream, at first. I yelled for help as soon as I could fill my lungs. Nobody came. Later, my friend said she’d heard me but thought the yowling was fighting barn cats.

If nobody was coming, I needed to risk sitting up. It hurt. I screamed for help. I tried to check on my horse but couldn’t turn enough to see him. Couldn’t stay upright. Laid back down in the cold dirt and screamed some more.

Finally, the stall cleaner came. More help started arriving. Somebody asked me what I needed, and I gasped that they should just shoot me. I didn’t want to admit I needed an ambulance. I didn’t want the humiliation of several people carrying my overweight body on a gurney. But my mobility issues weren’t just shock. I asked for an ambulance. 

Then, they told me. Eleven miles away, at the university where I’d earned my Master’s degree, a gunman was loose on campus. I might have to wait a while for that ambulance.

On February 13, 2023, a gunman walked into a classroom at Michigan State University shortly after 8 p.m. By the time the shooting was over, several people in two buildings were shot and three students were killed (Arielle Anderson, Brian Fraser, and Alexandria Verner).

Our timelines don’t line up exactly. When there’s a mass shooting in your community, it takes time to know what’s going on. There’s the actual shooting itself. There are the 911 calls. There’s law enforcement response. At some point, the emergency text goes out. And depending on when the shooter is located, it can be hours before the all-clear is given.

Like the rest of the community, I didn’t have very many details at 9:30 p.m. When I heard about the shooting, I concentrated hard on my body and my injuries, doing a system check as best as I could. Maybe I could crawl into a car and get someone to drive me? I didn’t want to wait hours in the cold dirt and I also didn’t want to use up an ambulance if somebody else needed it more.

I’ve felt shame over my riding accidents before. Nearly every time I’ve gotten injured, I’ve felt embarrassed. I’ve imagined other, similarly neurotic people fret about their own culpability in their injuries. My regret has always comingled with fat-shaming; we overweight folks get hurt because physics just isn’t on our side.

That night, the shame walloped me. It would have taken my breath away if the fall itself hadn’t done a pretty good job of that. I was going to use up valuable resources on a night when kids were terrified and bleeding all because I have this dumb, silly, expensive hobby. I wondered, for the first time, whether equestrians use up more than our fair share of emergency services; if we are like billionaires on private jets that spit emissions into the air, damning us all for what? Convenience, thrill, satisfaction? I can accept the risk for myself but there were only so many ambulances in the region that night. What if my choice to ride led indirectly to someone else’s death?

Those are the thoughts of an anxious, injured person before she gets morphine (after the morphine, I told my husband that I’d give up horses if he let me have a third baby. He didn’t go for it, and I have a new horse).

My rational mind knows that emergency services know how to triage. But my rational mind wasn’t in charge, even if my internal monologue resembled undergrad ethics debate prep.

When the ambulance arrived, the chief of the local emergency services authority showed up with it. A horse guy himself, my friend and my trainer both knew him. He responded that night, he explained, because his crews had been called to East Lansing for mutual aid. 

“Don’t be embarrassed,” someone told me, “He likes tall horses, too.”

I spent the night apologizing, anyway. First to the EMTs for bothering them, then every time I screamed when the ambulance hit a pothole (“Fix the Damn Roads” was a Gov. Gretchen Whitmer campaign slogan for a reason). 

When I agreed to go to the hospital, I imagined I’d go to Sparrow Hospital. It’s where I was born. It’s where I’d given birth to my youngest daughter exactly eight months before. My grandmother and cousins had worked there. It’s what felt familiar and safe. But it’s also where the shooting victims were being taken, and everyone else was getting routed to other area hospitals, the chief told me. They took me to a hospital on the southside of Lansing. 

My first impression when they wheeled me in was that I had never seen a hospital so staffed up. Personnel were crowded at the desk, their faces tight but calm. I saw resolve.

As far as emergency rooms go, this wasn’t my first rodeo. But it was my first time at finals, shall we say. People packed into my room, moving fast, asking questions.

What medications did I take? Did I get bucked off?

“No,” I said, “I stayed on for the bucking. It was the running and stopping that did me in.”

After they determined I wasn’t going to die or become paralyzed, my room got quieter. I turned on the TV to check for shooting updates, the way I have done so, so many times before. The way I did for Columbine when I was a teenager. For Virginia Tech when I was a young professional. For Aurora. For Newton. In the scheme of things, the Michigan State University shooting in 2023 doesn’t even make the “deadliest” list on Wikipedia. It was a blip in the national attention.

Around here, when I’m explaining my injuries to people, “the night of the MSU shooting” is adequate. People know when that was. They know what it means. But a visiting clinician that I lessoned with recently hadn’t even heard of it. Not her fault. We’re used to these things, as a nation. We need fresher horrors to even make an impression.

I did a lot of thinking in that hospital bed over the next couple of days. I was distraught at the idea that I was wasting a huge chunk of my youngest child’s babyhood. Instead of crawling on the floor with her, I’d be perched on my cushions for six to 12 weeks while bones in my back, butt and ribcage healed. 

I thought of the staggering financial cost right after we’d paid for having said baby. The time involved in traumatic injuries (a year later and I’m still in twice-weekly physical therapy).

I thought about horses and riding. Was this it? Was this the thing that finally was going to make me quit? And what about my horse? What was our future going to look like? I decided that yes, I wanted to keep riding but that my horse was the wrong fit for a nervous post-injury rider. He was a free lease and went back home to his owner. 

When I thought about how cold I’d been while I laid in the dirt screaming for help, I realized the temperature could have been fatal. No more riding alone in the winter.

When EMTs asked for details of the fall, I gasped that they should go get my phone off the tripod and check the video. But that wasn’t possible. The cold zapped the battery on my phone and the recording automatically shut off before my fall.

I thought about my husband and how much he hates hospitals and injuries and how, when my trainer called him from my low-battery phone, all he caught initially was “fell” and “going to die.”

I thought about the shooting. I returned, again and again, to the question of whether I was “bad” for falling and using emergency resources on a night when other people needed them, too. Health care workers and emergency responders were so gracious, but I speculated that they’d rather be helping somebody with nobler injuries than my riding accident. Isn’t it more rewarding to save a hero than it is a silly late-30s woman who could have been home with her children instead of riding a horse that nobody wanted to pay money for?

I thought about my kids again. I want them to learn about dirt and mud and the smell of leather and the feel of a horse nuzzling you for treats. They should learn about work and devotion for something that may never earn you an income or win you awards or even a thank-you. I want them to see the best version of me.

My dignity and my pride came creeping back as I thought about the life I want my children to have. 

And then I became very, very angry at the shooter and a political culture that allows gun violence to continue in the United States.

I’ve come to feel that, of all the injuries that night, mine was the one, as a culture, we shouldn’t feel ashamed of. I knew the risks. I knew the rewards. I got hurt pursuing my own happiness. This is what emergency services should be for. For riding accidents and bicycle wipe-outs and tumbling out of trees. Ambulances shouldn’t be for shooting victims because there shouldn’t BE shooting victims.

I can accept ambulance rides for people who went skipping into danger. I cannot accept ambulance rides for people who were just doing the bare essentials of living in a society, like going to school or work.

In a country where you can be gunned down for going to a nightclub, for going to a concert, for going to worship, for going shopping—screw it. I’m going to ride the horse.