Prosthetic leg and prior falls won't deter this horseback rider
By Richard Rostron
Toby McGrath, a 70-year-old grandmother from Wheeling, makes regular trips to Spring Grove’s Meadowsweet Ranch where she boards and rides her horse, Lago. A few years ago, while riding somewhere else on a horse she previously owned, she was bucked off the horse.
“I really got hurt and I had to promise my family I wouldn’t ride that horse again,” she said.
No surprise to anyone who knows Toby – she was up and riding within six months, though on a different horse.
While many women her age might have taken falling from the horse as a sign that they should turn to a safer and more sedate activity, that’s not in Toby’s nature. What makes her story even more remarkable is that it isn’t the only time she’s fallen from a horse. Oh, and she also has a prosthetic left leg.
Pregnant with complications
While eight months pregnant in 1968, Toby caught a bad case of the Hong Kong flu. This was complicated by another condition – Lupus. The latter involves the body’s immune system attacking normal tissues and organs. The pain was severe and her leg had swollen to three times its normal size.
She was diagnosed with multiple deep vein blood clots. Though there are medications today that might have saved her leg, in 1968, they determined she needed an amputation because gangrene set in. A vascular surgeon performed the operation with an obstetrician standing by to save the infant as Toby’s chances of surviving the operation were not considered good.
Toby pulled through and even considers herself lucky beyond mere survival. She said that, if the blood clot affecting her leg was in an artery, they would have needed to take the entire leg. It was in a vein and they only took her leg from below the knee.
Today, one of the family members who wants Toby to go easy on her riding is her son, Tim, who went through the ordeal with Toby from inside the womb. Since losing her leg, along with raising Tim and her other two children, Margaret and Charles, she’s also worked for 30 years as a nurse, and owned a nurse case management service company. She’s also skied with the Chicagoland Handicap Skiers, does volunteer work driving seniors to medical appointments and works at the local food pantry. In the meantime, she started her equestrian journey with horseback riding lessons and has owned three different horses over the course of the last six years.
Trading her way up to the right horse
Her first horse was named Gambler. She didn’t like the name and changed it to Rambler. She found him on the Internet and learned that’s not necessarily the best way to go about buying a horse. “The person she bought the horse from should have interviewed Toby to make sure she was ready to handle a horse like this,” said Kathy Boettcher, the owner of Meadowsweet Ranch.
A little too spirited, Rambler later reared up and went over backwards on Toby’s trainer. The trainer was seriously injured. Toby more or less swapped Rambler for her second horse – Magic. A Tennessee Walker, Magic was a spirited horse but a well trained horse. Toby was only thrown off once – the aforementioned event when her family asked her to back off on riding for a while. She put Magic up for adoption.
“Now, Magic is an endurance horse,” Toby said. “This is really what she was meant for.”
This led Toby to her current horse – Lago – who she purchased with some advice from Boettcher. Lago is a 10-year-old Pinto Paso Fino. A smaller horse and a gelding, Lago and Toby seem almost destined for each other. Still, Toby has come off the horse unintentionally once.
When you fall from a horse, get back up and try again
She fell from the horse last summer after something spooked him. Lago spun around quickly – a little too quickly for Toby to stay on.
“There’s a saying that a quarter horse can spin on a dime,” Boettcher said. “A Paso Fino can spin on the head of a pin. Lago spun so fast that Toby came off by centrifugal force.”
Undeterred, Toby is focused on improving her riding skills while training Lago in the process. She has had one other mishap but it was one she and Boettcher laughed about when recalling. Toby’s prosthetic leg fell off while riding one day.
“I had to help her off the horse and give her, her leg back,” Boettcher said.
Toby said it’s very uncommon for the leg to come off and was only able to on this occasion because she was wearing short pants.
“They’ve done a lot with prosthetics over the years,” she said. “With my first prosthetic leg, it had a big leather sleeve. It was cumbersome.”
McGrath said Lago noticed her prosthetic leg the first time she rode the horse. He would stop and turn his head to sniff at the prosthetic leg while Toby was on his back.
“He knew something was wrong,” Toby said. “He knows my one leg is weaker.”
Boettcher said Toby does a great job controlling her horse. She said she can ask Toby to do almost anything anyone else can do with the horse. However, they have had to make adjustments due to Toby’s condition, such as getting on the horse from the right side instead of the left side.
“People ask me, ‘How can you ride,’” Toby said. “I tell them that, as long as the horse has four legs, that’s good enough for me.”
More than just using the reins to help steer the horse, a rider uses their legs to apply pressure to one side or the other of the horse when they want to turn.
“Basically, Lago took advantage for a little while,” Boettcher said.
With training, Lago and Toby have learned to work together and communicate well. She says she just loves the freedom that she feels when riding and has no intention of retiring from riding any time soon.
Above all, Toby said that it’s important not to let age or other factors, such as the loss of a leg, stand in the way of having an active life; she said people should not give up on their dreams.