After Peggy Ingles was paralyzed in a riding accident, she was told she'd never walk again. Now she's back in the saddle.

Riding horseback down the long road to recovery


For Peggy Ingles, a trip downstairs to the stable was like walking to the kitchen in the morning to start coffee. She could do it in her sleep, and practically did on some days.

That was before the fall. Before the riding accident that left Ingles, a champion rider from northern Baltimore County, paralyzed, with only the slightest ability to move her arms. Before the operation, the weeks in the nursing home, the months of treatment with, at times, no great hope for success.

Now a physical therapist pushes Ingles in her wheelchair across the gravel parking lot of a Cecil County ranch and toward the barn. The head of the therapeutic riding program chats about a recent ride on a feisty chestnut Arabian, and Ingles returns a knowing smile.

"Oh, a hothead," she says. "I don't mind a hot rod, as long as it has good brakes."

A Norwegian pony is maneuvered toward a wooden ramp. From there, Peggy Ingles is lifted from her wheelchair.

Back in the saddle again.

She had spent her entire adult life working on horse farms in the area - training horses, breeding them, selling them and boarding them. At the U.S. National Arabian and Half-Arabian Championship, Ingles won the top honor in the half-Arabian "working hunter class" in 2002 and 2003.

In 2004, she was leasing a 30-acre spread in Monkton - Starstruck Farms, she called it - where she boarded and trained horses. Her son, James, was living off campus at the University of Maryland, College Park, and she was home-schooling her teenage daughter, Cassie.

On Sept. 1 of that year, Ingles was exercising a 5-year-old retired racehorse, trying to retrain it so it could be ridden recreationally. Female horses were running in the adjacent field.

Within seconds, Ingles' horse pivoted onto a slight incline, raised its head and fell backward. Ingles' neck hit a fence.

She was flown to Maryland Shock Trauma Center. Tests showed her spinal cord was deeply bruised but not severed.

Ingles spent time in rehabilitation at Kernan Hospital in Baltimore and at Manor Care in Towson. Friends came by daily for months, taking turns helping Cassie with the barn chores. Fundraisers at local horse shows and at a Monkton restaurant helped cover the cost of some medical bills for Ingles, who has no insurance.

She was able to move back to her farm last year, continuing physical and occupational therapy as an outpatient. When she regained the ability to move her left arm, she named it Kate after her occupational therapist.

But her physical therapist at the time told her to be prepared to spend the rest of her life in a wheelchair. Ingles started to believe she would never walk again - much less ride a horse.

She closed her farm in August. Four of her personal horses were leased to new owners, including one horse that is helping an autistic child in Pennsylvania.

"It was devastating," Ingles says of the closing. "But I had to do it."

Cassie went to live with her father and start college. Ingles moved to a small apartment in Towson. Hired caregivers come each morning and night to prepare meals and help her bathe.

In March 2005, at a fundraiser for the nonprofit that Ingles helped to found, Maryland Network for Injured Equestrians, Ingles met an executive at the Kennedy Krieger Institute. He wanted her to start therapy at their new center for spinal cord injury, headed by Dr. John W. McDonald, the neurologist who had treated actor Christopher Reeve.

"They said I was perfect for the program," says Ingles. "But I was skeptical."

Then, she met Patrick Rummerfield, a former quadriplegic who regained his ability to walk 3 1/2 years after the car accident that left him paralyzed. Seventeen years after the accident, Rummerfield became a marathon runner, using similar techniques to those now used at Kennedy Krieger, where he recruits patients. He calls Ingles "a bright light."

Ingles scoffs at the idea of being an inspiration.

"You can go, `Woe is me' and give up," Ingles says. "I'm just in denial. I can't imagine being like this for the rest of my life."

"Finally someone handed me the hope I needed," she says. "Christopher Reeve died thinking he would walk again. You need that."

Ingles started treatment three times a week at Kennedy Krieger in July and working on therapies at home, making gains that have astonished the staff.

"She's on a remarkable recovery curve," says McDonald.

The clinic treats about 50 patients, though 150 more are working on the in-home portion of the therapy. About 65 percent of the spinal cord patients are children and teenagers. With a waiting list and only 20 physical therapists, the clinic needs to double its staff.

The approach is twofold: By using electrical impulses to stimulate muscles to move, the body repairs the broken pathways from brain to limb, McDonald says. And, he says, by exercising, patients are in better condition to benefit from treatments that are being developed.

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