The Winners 2010 Under 26 Runner-up

The following is a factual passage based on a real life experience of the author. Something isn’t right. I just know it isn’t. It’s a bad one, very bad. I’ve fallen off more times than I can count. Never before have I not been able to get up.

These were the thoughts that rushed through my aching head as I lay stricken on the heat-baked ground as the sound of thundering hooves disappeared into the distance. ‘What just happened?’ I asked myself. He’d been schooling really well, felt like he was taking to it, like a duck to water. Right now, though, I feel, well and truly, like a fish out of water.

Arms stretched out behind my head, I grasp at the hard, rugged edges of the ground beneath me. Mum looks over me holding both her horse and mine. She had thought I was fooling about. I’m not. We’re in the middle of a field. She has hold of two hot-blooded thoroughbreds. I can’t move. And we have no phone.

“Give me five minutes”, I keep saying, “I’ll be able to get up then”, as I repeatedly try to rock myself up from my beached whale impersonation. The most I can muster is prising my shoulders millimetres from the ground. “I’ll be fine, just give me a bit longer”. Panic is starting to set in. What I was saying, as a form of reassurance for my mum, I am now beginning to doubt myself. Maybe - just maybe - I won’t be getting up. Not this time. My worst nightmare.

Dark moments. Serious stuff, but with a brief lighter side. As I lay in the twin berth mobile accommodation that we call an ambulance, I hear the satellite navigation system repeatedly saying, ‘Please make a ‘U’ turn’… ‘Please make a ‘U’ turn.’ Surely to God an ambulance should be able to find its way to the local hospital. Obviously not!

Upon eventual arrival, on what resembled the set of TV series Casualty, it all started. Clothes are cut off. I knew I shouldn’t wear odd socks! ‘Oh s**t, what knickers have I got on? Faces peer over me, questions asked, questions answered. “Pain level?” “10 out of 10,” I whimpered. Needle in right elbow. Needle in left wrist. Morphine administered. “Pain level now?” Considerably less. The light headed feeling resembles the one after just one too many gins. X-rays from every angle, then I’m wheeled down a long straight corridor, counting the ceiling tiles and lights as they pass above my head. Through the double doors at the end, and there it is… the biggest Polo I have ever seen in my life. Now I’m being posted inside it, I’m having a scan apparently.

It’s now 2 hours after I hit the ground, and I still don’t know what is wrong with me. I still can’t sit up, move my legs, and most embarrassingly, control my bladder - not good for your pride as a 22-year-old girl. Then I hear it, the clip clopping of the shoes of what can only be a serious doctor. The triffed –covered curtain and lack of air movement in the hospital makes me feel like I am a wilting plant in a greenhouse just waiting for a drop of water to restore the life in me.

The serious doctor pulls aside the curtain, steps towards the bed, puts an X-ray on the light board above my head, looks down at my worried face and says, “Hello Charlotte, I’ve had a look at your scan and X-rays” - just get on with it I’m thinking - “And,” he paused again, “You’ve broken your back”. Bang! It hit me. The blood drained from my head. The room began to spin. The tears began to form. Nothing would come out of my mouth; I didn’t know what to say. This can’t be happening. This can’t be the end. Everything I’d ever dreamt, it’s over.

After two weeks of ‘box rest’ at York District hospital, I was involved in a twilight transfer to Hull Royal Infirmary Neurological Unit. At 1 o’clock in the morning, a small, dark-haired, spectacle-wearing man entered my room. He had just finished in theatre. Mr David O’Brien was his name. “So Charlotte, I hear you’ve broken your back,” he said. “I’m going to try and fix it for you”. No matter how many times I heard those two words, ‘broken back’, it still hadn’t sunk in. “You may be paralysed from the waist down if this operation doesn’t work”, he announced. Not the average thing to be told by a dry sense of humoured Dublin man.

What followed was to be the longest, hardest journey my life would have to face.

Seventeen screws, bolts and plates were inserted into my spine; a body brace worn for 4 months; endless physio; swimming; tears; doubts of whether I would ever ride again; more tears; and being kept from the back of my beloved horses for 12 months.

Screws, bolts and plates removed and I’d be allowed back on. How would I feel then? Scared? Happy? Excited? All of them?

The day finally arrived. I climbed from the steps onto the carefully selected beast, I sat there - motionless. I felt so high up. Then we walked. There was so much movement. I had always taken for granted the feeling of motion underneath me. I cried, quite through which emotion I am not sure. Those first steps were something I’d dreamt of every day for the previous year. The best feeling I’d ever had in my life.

Now for the next dream…Before the accident I had ventured into the world of point to pointing, probably not something to which it would be sensible to return. But then, sensible is dull!

Valentines Day 2010. 2 years, 9 months, 29 days, and approximately 5 hours 30 minutes after I hit the ground and I’m at the start. All those emotions are back; scared, happy and excited. The flag is dropped. We charge to the first, he jumps it well. I’m sat on the inner, so many instructions going through my head. First circuit completed. He’s so economical, wasting not an ounce of energy. Gallop and jump. Gallop and jump. It’s rhythmic and relentless. Calm and surreal.

Things gets a bit tight after the tenth. I switch wide to keep out of trouble. We lose a bit of ground. The words, “he’ll probably need a run, it’s his first race of the season”, are ringing in my ears. “Maybe he’s had enough”, I ask myself, I’ll give him a quick reminder, see what happens. We jump the ditch for the second time. Response. We’re up there again. Suddenly, with four left to jump I’m sitting third, travelling well. I still feel calm. I hadn’t expected it to be going this well. Three out, two out, still going well. Coming to the last, a length behind the leader, I don’t want to hit the front too soon! He hasn’t got his blinkers on! We thought he’d need the run! Land over the last, kick, drive, push, shout. Keep looking up that hill towards the finish. We’re passing the grey horse, and we’ve done it. I’m flying; I’ve just ridden my first winner! Now that is one hell of a feeling. That really is the best feeling in the world. Who would have thought it after the journey I had taken? The beached whale impersonation. The detour in the ambulance. The box rest in York. The twilight transfer. The terror of the operation. The long return to riding.

Now, I am a fish firmly back in the water. And let me tell you this, I could seriously take to this winning feeling. I never stopped dreaming.