After a devastating car wreck left her battered and broken, Amy Novacek picked herself back up, determined to heal with a newfound purpose in life.
By Rachel Florman
When Amy Novacek lopes her horse across the sandy flats of a freshly drug arena, it seems she has it all: the blonde horsewoman’s blue eyes sparkle above a beaming smile as she floats forward on the soft, rocking strides of a chrome-and-copper steed. On the rail, former Dallas Cowboys tight end Jay Novacek watches his wife with the intensity of an unwavering teammate; her proud children, Blake and McKinley, cheer on their mother, and a pair of shaggy Labradoodles wag happily while their eyes fixate on their favorite person.
From the outside looking in, Amy’s life is a fairytale.
But the magic crumbles away when Amy rides back to her stall: and the pattern’s already forgotten, and exhaustion pales her face. Jay gently lifts her down from her mount, and McKinley unsaddles because her mother’s arms cannot reach up. Amy leans onto her service dogs to stabilize her walk, and the illusion of perfection is replaced with the tough realities of a determined spirit trapped in a fractured body.
Such is the story of Amy’s world for the past four years, after a high-speed collision shattered the Novaceks’ lives and left their matriarch fighting to pick up the pieces of her health and life, even now.
Amy’s story is no fairytale, but it’s no tragedy either. She’s forever changed, but with stubborn resolution, the help of miraculous animals and a drive to serve others, Amy’s hard at work uplifting others while healing herself along the way.
Healing on Horseback
It seemed like a normal day—one like all the others—in December 2013: Amy had just dropped her children at school and was turning into her Joshua, Texas, driveway. Suddenly, a speeding vehicle plowed into the side of her car, crushing her body, marring her memory and irreversibly altering her life and the lives of those she loved most.
“It wasn’t just my accident, it was ours; all of our lives are so different now,” Amy said. “I couldn’t speak for nearly a year and a half, and there are a lot of physical things I still can’t do, so Jay and the kids have to help take care of me.”
The crash also robbed Amy of horses, her lifelong passion. She couldn’t walk, let alone ride, but she craved the unbridled freedom the saddle affords. Instead of rushing and risking disaster, Amy fought for every inch of physical progress to bring her closer to her goal.
“Life is just like training horses,” Amy said. “You have goals, but it’s not always going to happen on your time and when you want. It’ll happen, though, when you come together with that animal and figure everything out—and that takes patience. But if you have that patience, everything works out beautifully.”
Like everything else, returning to riding started slowly. In 2015, Amy found an easygoing partner, the 2009 bay tobiano Magical Jet Lag, whose forgiving nature let her fumble through re-learning a lifetime of muscle memory she once took for granted. Step by step, the healing power of horses worked wonders on Amy’s body and soul. Walking turned to jogging, loping and then, against all odds, competing again.
“Once I started riding, it all seemed to come together,” Amy said. “The hand-eye coordination of steering, keeping my heels down, holding my hand and arms just so, remembering body position, changing the horse’s body position and then doing all that at once—it’s hard for a normal human! So when I’m able to accomplish it, it’s pretty amazing. Riding changed my life; it’s the best mental and physical therapy anyone can have.”
Life is certainly not back to normal, however. Though therapy and riding have helped Amy reclaim some mobility and balance, her best days still require an involved team effort to groom, saddle and mount up. Even after more than two years in excruciating eye therapy, Amy’s vision isn’t healed, and she still sees double in her right eye; trail courses are especially daunting—where a pattern might include five logs, Amy actually sees 10.
Short-term memory loss makes improving and showing difficult, too, as instructions often vanish from Amy’s mind like pages torn from a book. Lessons are explanations on repeat.
“Working with me must take a lot of patience—it’s like you’re talking to a kid, but you’re looking at an adult,” Amy said. “When you see me on a horse, you can’t quite tell there’s something wrong, but you can’t judge people on how they look.”
Amy has a horse-show secret weapon, though: Jay.
The three-time NFL Superbowl champion is also a walking, talking horse show encyclopedia, Amy says. Though he prefers the rush of cutting a cow to the gliding strides of Western pleasure, Jay attends all of Amy’s lessons, studying the playbooks of each all-around event.
“Jay’s the one I look for on the rail,” Amy said. “Here’s this guy who’s brilliant in football and on a cutting horse, and who’s never shown a pleasure horse nor wanted to—and not only does he know how to get the horse dressed and my collar straight, but he also knows every event, how my horse is supposed to look and what I need to do to ride well. And he can tell me: ‘Push him up, bring him back, here’s your spot on that pole.’ So when I’m looking for my safety spot on the rail, I’m looking for him. Not just because he’s my husband, but because he knows all this for me.”
Amy’s perseverance inspires Jay, pushing him to grow as a horseman. His current endeavor is training Eighty Four Proof, a jet-black tobiano stallion, for cutting competition.
“Sharing our passion for horses is one of the most exciting things about our life,” Jay said. “I get to sit back and watch her do it, and she does the same for me. When I’m struggling with my lack of ability to train a horse—because I’ve never done it before—it’s her encouragement that pushes me to seek help. The confidence Amy has in me is oftentimes more than I have in myself, and having someone like that makes you want to perform at a higher level, not just in competition but as a person.”
As the designated helper in all ways—from saddling to helping Amy on and off—Jay is there for Amy’s tough times and her triumphs; 2017 was especially joyful, as Amy’s show efforts culminated in an APHA reserve world championship and year-end No. 1 title aboard Sensationalsugardaddy. Jay knows the dedication, sacrifice, humility and passion the sport demands, and that titles are earned long before the competition begins. Most of all, the retired athlete recognizes Amy’s champion mindset.
“You have to have that idea in your mind that you’re going to succeed, and Amy always sets herself up to do so,” he said. “The majority of the time, watching her show is pretty inspiring. When it doesn’t go well and she’s hard on herself, we have to put everything—the accident, the surgeries, the nature of horses—into perspective.”
This is an excerpt from the full article—get the whole story in the Spring 2018 Chrome magazine, which is sent to all current APHA members. Not a member? Join or renew at apha.com/join.