Recovering from WEG accident, horseman gains new appreciation for life

rider collapsed during WEG event

mmeehan1@herald-leader.comDecember 26, 2010 

As the saying goes, you have to get back on the horse. Perhaps horseman Eitan Beth-Halachmy knows that better than anyone.

"I knew I needed to do that for my own sake," said Beth-Halachmy. "You could say I was anxious."

The California horseman, known for his brand of stylized riding called cowboy dressage, slid off his horse, Sante Fe Renegade, and slumped to the ground shortly after performing in the opening ceremony of the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games on Sept. 25 at the Kentucky Horse Park.

Although there is a technical name for his medical condition, in laymen's terms his heart stopped. If not for the presence of paramedics just a few steps away, the now 71-year-old equestrian probably would have died.

"People are saying it was a miracle. I never believed in miracles until it happened to me," Beth-Halachmy said in a lilting accent that reflects his Israeli heritage.

University of Kentucky opera program director Everett McCorvey, who oversaw the opening ceremony, has kept in touch with Cowboy Eight, as Beth-Halachmy is known to friends.

"He's a marvel," said McCorvey. "He is known and loved all over the world and has just a great outlook on life. He is an athlete, and that's why he was able to come through (the illness) very well."

After his collapse, Beth-Halachmy remained in intensive care at UK Chandler Hospital for about three weeks, then went to Colorado to stay with a friend who is a doctor.

He set Nov. 24 — his 71st birthday — as the day he would ride again.

"I started two weeks ahead of that," said Beth-Halachmy. His mount was the horse he'd ridden in the opening ceremony, Sante Fe Renegade.

Decades in the saddle helped him get back on a horse, he said.

"Really, riding is more balance than anything else," Beth-Halachmy said. But the incident, and the surgeries that followed, had taken a toll.

"A lot of muscles that I had before were not functioning as much as they had before," he said. As the weather turned colder, he surprised himself by seeking physical therapy.

"Rehab is not for cowboys," he said with a laugh. "We can do it on our own."

As for his mount, Sante Fe Renegade, Beth-Halachmy said, he seems to have moved on just fine.

"I don't think that he kept anything from that night. If he did he's not talking about it," he said.

Beth-Halachmy had a history of heart trouble, having had bypass surgery about 12 years ago. But, he said, he was feeling fine on the opening day of WEG; there was no sign of a problem. Today, he doesn't remember much of what happened after he started to head out of the show ring.

"I was just fine the second before it happened. I kind of got a jerk back, and I was kind of dizzy," he said. "I knew that I needed to be out of there.

"I can't remember, and I don't want to remember."

A friend of the family who was taping the opening ceremony captured the fall. Beth-Halachmy said he saved the video so he can watch it.

There have been some good things to come of his medical emergency.

"I lost about 20 pounds through that ordeal, which was kind of nice. I've gained five back," he said, adding that losing weight was something he had talked about doing for a long time.

But the biggest gift of all, he said, is seeing how he has touched people through his riding and his life.

"People that I never knew were walking up (and saying), 'You are so good and so nice,' " he said. "You don't hear it when you go through your life and everything is OK.

"People I haven't talked to in a long time came back into my life."

And he's made new connections. He received 18,000 e-mail messages from people about the fall. "I don't know 18,000 people," he said. "I know 18, not 18,000."

A fellow horseman joked with him that, "if you get famous by having fallen off the horse, I would have done it a long time ago."

Beth-Halachmy said the incident was life-changing.

"It was kind of a wake-up call," he said. "I have always wanted to be a better horseman and have better horses. It is nice to have those things, but I want to be a better person. That's my thing to be, a better person."

Although he is booked for clinics or riding events nearly every weekend of 2011, he is trying to take life a little easier and spend more time with his wife of 20 years, Debbie.

Although he's never been a fan of Hawaii — "For me, walking on the beach with cowboy boots on is not my thing. I find it boring." — a friend with a condo there sent him two plane tickets, so he's going.

"I'm used to just kind of rushing all the time," he said. "We all need reminders every so often to slow down."

Reach Mary Meehan at (859) 231-3261 or 1-800-950-6397.

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