CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Leigh Nida, a veterinarian at Good Shepherd Veterinary Hospital, was married Saturday in a happily-ever-after "country chic" ceremony to her very own Prince Charming, Scott Johnson. But how Nida got to her fairytale ending is a story of suffering, grit and kismet.
In 2009, while home in St. Albans on a break from veterinary school, Nida fell from a horse, breaking her back in three places.
"I knew something bad was wrong," she said. "I thought I had broken my pelvis. The EMT said, 'Tell me when you can feel this.'" He was running the Wartenberg wheel to check nerve reaction across her foot and leg.
"I was laying flat, so I couldn't see him. They had already put a neck brace on me. I could see my trainer, Jane; she was standing beside the EMT, and her face went white. Then I knew it was something very bad."
Doctors found she had two compression fractures that could be healed by wearing a brace. But more troubling was a third burst fracture that was compressing her spinal cord.
"I could move my legs, but I couldn't feel them. I was hospitalized for 10 days. It happened on a Thursday. I couldn't have surgery till Friday night when the neurosurgeon flew in."
But Nida was determined to get better and to do so quickly. After leaving the hospital, she went home for two weeks, then back to school wearing a back brace and enduring constant pain, "If I didn't go back to school, I wasn't going to graduate on time."
• • •
Before her fall, Nida said she met her "soul mate," Trooper, the horse that would play an integral part in her recovery.
For years, Nida rode and trained at Taylor Made Farms in Hurricane, with owners Jane and Taylor Winsford. The Winsfords had purchased Trooper as a spirited 3-year-old, and it was there that Nida, in her late teens, met and fell in love with him.
"We had a connection that nobody understood. He was a young horse, and he was a little bit wild. My trainers were afraid he was going to hurt me so they sold him. I quit riding for two years because I was so devastated from not having Trooper."
Meanwhile, Nida completed her undergraduate work at West Virginia University and had been accepted into veterinary school at Ohio State University.
Nida said that while in high school she often rode with equine veterinarian Steve Walker. In doing so, she realized her love of animals meant she wanted to pursue a career caring for them.
Eventually she returned to riding. In July 2009, during a ride, the horse Nida was on spooked at something and spun. She lost her seat and fell.
Doctors wouldn't consider allowing her to ride again for five months. Nida wasn't sure she would ever ride again.
Late that autumn, the Winsfords were in Kentucky looking to buy another horse when they walked past a stall containing a skinny, lame, poorly nourished Trooper. Nida had never forgotten her soul mate.
"Taylor said to Jane, 'Don't tell Leigh or I will divorce you.' She was texting me a picture right then." Nida recalled.
Trooper's reappearance in Nida's life gave her something to focus on. After the Winsfords found him, Nida began her campaign to get Trooper back. She was reaching for something to connect with, something to focus on. She said she promised her trainers, "If you get him back, I will never ride him."
Unbeknownst to her, the Winsfords had already purchased Trooper. They gave him to Nida for Christmas that year. Nida and the Winsfords spent the winter rehabilitating him while Nida worked on her own rehabilitation through physical therapy.
"I was scared. Up until that point I had never had any fear of riding. I was fearless. But then, when you have a serious injury, well, I was deciding whether to ever ride again."