Reeve took up horse riding in 1985 after learning to ride for the film Anna Karenina. He was initially allergic to horses, so he took antihistamines. He trained on Martha's Vineyard, and by 1989 he began eventing. As with every other sport and activity in which he participated (sailing, scuba diving, skiing, aviation, windsurfing, cycling, gliding, parasailing, mountain climbing, baseball, tennis), he took horse riding seriously and was intensely competitive with it. His allergies soon disappeared.
Reeve bought a 12-year-old American thoroughbred horse named Eastern Express, nicknamed "Buck", while filming Village of the Damned. He trained with Buck in 1994, and planned to do Training Level events in 1995 and move up to Preliminary in 1996. Though Reeve had originally signed up to compete at an event in Vermont, his coach invited him to go to the Commonwealth Dressage and Combined Training Association finals at the Commonwealth Park equestrian center in Culpeper, Virginia. Reeve finished at fourth place out of 27 in the dressage, before walking his cross-country course. He was concerned about jumps sixteen and seventeen, but paid little attention to the third jump, which was a routine three-foot-three fence shaped like the letter 'W'.
On May 27, 1995, Reeve's horse had a refusal. Reeve fell and sustained a cervical spinal injury that paralyzed him from the neck down. He had no recollection of the incident. Witnesses said that Buck started the jump over the third fence, and then suddenly stopped. Someone said that a rabbit spooked the horse, and another person claimed that it might have been a shadow. Reeve held on and the bridle, the bit, and the reins were pulled off the horse and tied his hands together. He landed headfirst on the other side of the fence. His helmet prevented any brain damage, but the impact of his 215 pound (98 kg) body hitting the ground shattered his first and second vertebrae. Reeve had not been breathing for three minutes before paramedics arrived. He was taken to the local hospital, and then flown by helicopter to the University of Virginia Medical Center.
For the first few days after the accident, Reeve suffered from delirium, woke up sporadically and would mouth words to Dana such as "Get the gun" and "They're after us". After five days, he regained full consciousness, and Dr. John Jane explained that he had destroyed his first and second cervical vertebrae, which meant that his skull and spine were not connected. His lungs were filling with fluid and were suctioned by entry through the throat; this was said to be the most painful part of Reeve's recovery.
After considering his situation, believing that not only would he never walk again, but that he might never move a body part again, Reeve considered suicide. He mouthed to Dana, "maybe we should let me go." She tearfully replied, "I am only going to say this once: I will support whatever you want to do, because this is your life, and your decision. But I want you to know that I'll be with you for the long haul, no matter what. You're still you. And I love you." Reeve never considered suicide as an option again.
Reeve went through inner anguish in the ICU, particularly when he was alone during the night. His approaching operation to reattach his skull to his spine (June 1995) "was frightening to contemplate. ... I already knew that I had only a fifty-fifty chance of surviving the surgery. ... Then, at an especially bleak moment, the door flew open and in hurried a squat fellow with a blue scrub hat and a yellow surgical gown and glasses, speaking in a Russian accent." The man announced that he was a proctologist and was going to perform a rectal exam on Reeve. It was Robin Williams, reprising his character from the film Nine Months. Reeve wrote: "For the first time since the accident, I laughed. My old friend had helped me know that somehow I was going to be okay."
Dr. John Jane performed surgery to repair Reeve's neck vertebrae. He put wires underneath both laminae and used bone from Reeve's hip to fit between the C1 and C2 vertebrae. He inserted a titanium pin and fused the wires with the vertebrae, then drilled holes in Reeve's skull and fit the wires through to secure the skull to the spinal column.
On June 28, 1995, Reeve was taken to the Kessler Rehabilitation Center in West Orange, New Jersey. He was given several blood transfusions in the first few weeks due to very low hemoglobin and protein levels. Many times his breathing tube would disconnect and he would be at the mercy of nurses to come in and save his life.
At the Institute, one of his aides was a Jamaican man named Glenn Miller, nicknamed Juice, who helped him learn how to get into the shower and how to use a powered wheelchair, which was activated by blowing air through a straw. Miller and Reeve would watch the film Cool Runnings and joke about Reeve directing the sequel, Bobsled Two.
Reeve had occupational therapy and physical therapy in rehab. In the therapy gym, Reeve worked on moving his trapezius muscle. Electrodes connected to him sent out readings to therapists, and every day he would try to beat his numbers from the day before. The most difficult part of rehabilitation was respiratory therapy. The therapist, Bill Carroll, used a hose to see how much air Reeve could inhale, measured in cubic centimeters as the vital capacity. In order to even consider getting off the artificial respirator, a patient needs a vital capacity of 750 ccs. Initially, Reeve could hardly get above zero. By the end of October, he was able to get around 50 ccs. This inspired him, and he felt his natural competitive edge coming back. The next day, he went up to 450 ccs. He reached 560 ccs the day after. Bill Carroll said, "I've never seen progress like that. You're going to win. You're going to get off this thing." On December 13, 1995, Reeve was able to breathe without a ventilator for 30 minutes.
Research in Israel
In July 2003, Christopher Reeve's continuing frustration with the pace of stem cell research in the U.S. led him to Israel, a country that is at the forefront of research in spinal cord injury. He was invited by Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs to seek out the best treatment for his condition. During his visit, Reeve called the experience “a privilege” and said, “Israel has very proactive rehab facilities, excellent medical schools and teaching hospitals, and an absolutely first-rate research infrastructure.”
Throughout his intensive tour, Reeve visited ALYN Hospital, Weizmann Institute of Science, and Technion - Israel Institute of Technology, among many other places. After meeting dozens of Israeli patients who had undergone groundbreaking recovery processes and made remarkable progress, Reeve was in awe and described the feeling as “almost overwhelming.” He explained, “The research progresses more rapidly in Israel than almost anywhere else I can think of. The decision they made about stem cells, where they had a debate and decided that secular law must prevail over religious teachings, is something that we need to learn in the United States.”
Reeve discussed his trip to Israel on CNN’s Larry King Live while he was in Tel Aviv. When asked what Israel is doing that other countries aren’t, Reeve responded, “They have a very progressive atmosphere here. They have socialized medicine so that doctors and patients do not have the problem of profit or trying to get insurance companies to pay for treatment. They also work very well together. They share their knowledge. This is a country of six million people about the size of Long Island, and everyone works together very tremendously. The people of the country benefit from that.”
Israelis were very receptive to Reeve’s visit, calling him an inspiration to all and urging him to never give up hope.
On October 10, 2004, Reeve died of cardiac arrest at the age of 52. His doctor, John McDonald, believed that it was an adverse reaction to the antibiotic that caused his death.