The Barn Rat's Battle to Live Again: The Erin Gildner Story

Photo of Erin
Photo of Erin
Often, while reflecting on certain chapters of our life written in our youth, the phrase, “There but by the grace of God go I,” pops into our heads. A slight chuckle and nervous smile sometimes follow, but deep inside we know there is really nothing to smile or laugh about. We know we dodged the virtual bullet. Disgrace or even worse missed its mark. For reasons we may never know, we miraculously escaped the consequences of our risky behavior. Many times, a single blinding glimpse of our mortality is enough for us to see the light and change our ways. Unfortunately, for thousands of teenagers and young adults who drink and drive, they fail to escape consequence, and in a blink of an eye, become a statistic. Some survive and remain convinced they are invincible. Many have perished leaving family and friends mournful forever. Others live, but are changed in ways they could have never imagined.

“I remember the paramedics telling me everything was going to be OK. They were going to get me out of the car. It wasn’t until

I was laying on the gurney at the hospital I realized I couldn‘t feel my legs.”

Erin Gildner always loved horses. At age 4, she rode stick horses she made with her neighbor in Arkansas. Their imagination took them and their wooden thoroughbreds through jumping courses and to luxurious horse shows. At age 6, she traded her stick pony for the real thing and saddled-up for her first riding lesson. From the moment her trusty steed trotted across an open field until her early teens, Gildner’s life was dedicated to horses. Maggie, an Australian sheep dog, was also near and dear
to her heart and was never far from her side.

When Gildner was 11, her dad got a new job. So she, along with her father and stepmother, moved from Arkansas to Florida. With the move came an addition to the family. Gildner’s grandparents bought her a real horse. The Arabian filly named Seratima, better known as Sera, and Gildner were inseparable. Going on trail rides, participating in shows or just feeding, caring and loving her horse gave Gildner great joy and purpose.

She began to work at the stables while still in grade school primarily in exchange for boarding fees and riding lessons. Cleaning stalls was a less than glamorous chore, but she also had lots of fun riding horses owned by others who were unable to for a variety of reasons. It was great for the horses, because they needed the exercise, but it also helped advance Gildner’s riding skills. She became a confident, competent rider and would often be asked to train “green” horses for those with lesser skills.

In the summer, Gildner’s stepmom would drop her off at the stable early in the morning on her way to work. There, she’d meet other young girls who also loved horses. Together, they would clean the barn and saddles, as well as other chores, and then ride and ride and ride.

Regularly, the owner of the stable would have the girls clean themselves up and take them to lunch and a movie. For Gildner, and the self-proclaimed “barn rats,” days at the stable were more like an equestrian summer camp than work. She was living a storybook life. Horses, dogs, sunshine, fresh air and lots of good friends graced her life, but things were about to change.

"When I was in the eighth grade, I moved Sera to another barn. The friends I had at the new barn were younger, so they weren’t my high schools friends. I gradually became more interested in being popular at school than in my horse and my “barn rat” friends. I had my first drink [of alcohol] when I was 16 years old,” Gildner said.

She remembers very well the first time she got drunk. As she says, “It was not pretty.” Her teenage drinking would lead to late nights and the customary hangover. Her throbbing head and aching body begged her to stay in bed and abandon her duties at the barn and the affection of her beloved Sera. It was not long before her riding days were over, and she sold Sera.

Parties, late nights and lots of drinking soon consumed her. It became more than a way of life; it was her life. The once stellar student was barely making it to class. She was chronically late. Most of the time, she was nursing the effects of her newly embraced risky behavior. Her grades were embarrassingly low, but by now the alcohol had quietly taken over and wickedly assured her this was the good life. The young girl who once had thoughts of attending the University of Florida was no more. Her replacement was a stranger to family and herself. Now, when Gildner wasn’t drinking, she was thinking about drinking.

Her new career choice didn’t help her addiction to booze. Working in restaurants provided easy access to free drinks when she completed her shift. Many times, the free drinks simply primed her for more drinks at another location. Each day became
hauntingly predictable. She showed up late for work, completed a shift, and then started drinking again.On more than one occasion, a manager informed Gildner if it hadn’t been for her charming personality, she would have been fired long ago. A serious night of drinking followed by a monstrous hangover would prompt Gildner to enact a “no call/no show.”

“I’d just decide I didn’t want to work there any more. Sometimes I’d been out too late the night before and didn’t feel like going to work, so I just would not show up for work. I knew I could get a job at another restaurant so it wasn’t any big deal,” she said. Desperate for change, Gildner moved back home with her parents and started back to school. She enrolled in Valencia Community College and was even encouraged to enroll in its honor program.

There was only one problem. Several of her classes were early in the morning, which of course conflicted with her late night drinking. It was standard practice for her to meander home two hours before she had to be in class, but on Sept. 11, 2001, the reality of her crumbling life hit her right in the face.

“As usual, I was late to class, but on the way, the guys on the radio were talking about an attack on the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. I went into the classroom and told everyone about the attack. They thought I was crazy, but soon they knew I wasn’t,” she said.

For Gildner, the collapse of the World Trade Center towers symbolizes her life. Like the towers, her life had been attacked. She recognized it was on fire and falling apart. It was time to try to rebuild her life, but she wasn’t quit sure how. Ironically, her mother, who was in the Navy Reserves, was called to active duty due to the attack on New York City and was sent to Saudi Arabia. Gildner moved back to Arkansas to house sit while her mother was overseas. This seemed like an answered prayer
that included working at Oaklawn Race Track hot walking horses. The job at the track required Gildner to be on time and at work early in the morning. She was clean and sober for the entire three weeks she worked at the track, but the itch for alcohol was too much. She quit the track job and found a new one at a restaurant.

The cycle of late nights, drinking and hangovers began spinning again, but it came to a screeching halt the night of April 10, 2002. “I got drunk the night before and had promised myself I wasn’t going to drink that night. I hadn’t planned on going out, but my friends talked me into going to the restaurant where I worked. I had a couple of glasses of wine. I felt OK when I got in the car to go home and get $20 and return to pay my friend’s bar tab,” she said. 

Gildner was one mile from her mom’s house when she lost control of the small red Saturn on a curve. The weather was good, but she was going too fast. She crossed the highway, missing oncoming traffic and then ran into a ditch coming to a stop on a rocky culvert. The little car flipped several times on its way to its final resting place, never hitting another. Fortunately,

Gildner was wearing a seat belt. It saved her life, but it didn’t prevent her from breaking the T-11 and 12 vertebrae. She was paralyzed from the waist down. Five days after her accident, surgery was performed and the T-8 and L-1 were fused. Metal rods were placed in her back, too. Rehab began almost immediately, teaching her how to live and work without the use of her legs. She met many amazing people while in rehab who were living proof you can reclaim your life if you choose to.

Gildner also met Mack Welch, a caseworker for the Arkansas Spinal Cord Commission. He talked her into speaking to people attending DWI and DUI classes around the state. Her testimonial not only had an impact on those who attended the classes, but her on as well.

“I decided to get help for my problem with alcohol. I came from a family of recovering alcoholics and knew I couldn’t beat it by myself,” she said.

Not only did Gildner get help, but she hasn’t had a drink in nine years. While attending her recovery program she met her husband, Ryan, who was also battling alcoholism. Both remain sober and are the proud parents of two young and rowdy boys.

Today, Gildner works for the University of Arkansas System and is a real-life soccer mom and member of the PTA. Her husband recently graduated with a bachelor’s degree in geology and works for a natural gas company.

When asked if she could change anything about her life, Gildner was quick to answer. “Sure, it would be nice to walk again, but only if I could keep the life I have now. It may sound crazy, but I’m grateful for my experiences. It stopped me from destroying myself and started me on a new path. I know it was divine intervention.”

Gildner's life, words and deeds are truly inspirational and have the ability to cause people to question or even stop their risky behavior. She also gives us reason to believe miracles do happen, and the grace of God is a consequence we hope never to escape.


Erin may be reached at



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