One day in December 2014, leading Scottish dressage rider Jo Barry was schooling her small tour horse Corchapin (Colin) at home, on a high after a successful month of training with her former employer Carl Hester. Ten days later she woke up in hospital, having been found unconscious after Colin apparently tripped and fell. Having suffered a devastating brain injury, Jo was faced with the monumental struggle of learning to walk, talk and ride again.
After winning her first national title since the accident in April this year (pictured on Goofy La Perle), she explains how instrumental horses and dressage have been in her recovery.
“Horses and riding has been the best possible physio,” she says. “Simple things like tacking up — the first time I tried to put on a bridle and my hands just started to take over and do it — it was so familiar. Even mucking out has helped so much with hand-eye coordination — just being able to get the droppings in the bucket.
“Riding has done so much for my coordination too. I wasn’t as quick with my aids — it was like a delayed response. The first time I tried to do tempi changes I just couldn’t, and it’s taken time and patience from Colin to accept that I’m not quite right.”
As well as physically helping Jo recover, the desire to get her dressage career back on track kept her going through the most difficult times.
“Being back on a proper dressage horse felt like I’d come home,” she remembers. “Doing my first change was lovely, and my first half-pass.
“It took a long time before I let myself go down to train with Carl though. I wouldn’t go until I felt ready to not waste his time, and to not embarrass myself. That first lesson with him I was in tears because I couldn’t do it how I wanted. But on the second day there were glimmers of how it used to feel, and that’s what I held on to.”
The bond with her horses, especially Colin, whom she describes as “like an old pair of slippers” made the impossible possible.
“Colin had qualified for regionals the year after the accident. I had the entry for them sitting underneath my sitting room table for God knows how long, but everyone told me I was stupid. I posted it off on the very last day I could. It was my first competition back — and Colin looked after me. I’d looked after him throughout his career and then he turned around and looked after me when I needed him.”
Jo quickly realised that in the time she had been out of the sport, dressage had moved on, and meant she had to up her game even further if she wanted to get back on top.
“I’m such a perfectionist,” she admits. “I’d say I still have 10% to go before I get back to where I used to be, but I need to be better than the old Jo because dressage has moved up from three years ago. It was hard enough before but the training, the horsepower has all improved and now you need to be scoring at least in the mid-70s to win a championship. So really I have 20% still to go.”
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Find out what daily life is like on the yard of dressage supremos Carl Hester and Charlotte Dujardin.
And it’s not just the horses and the competing — Jo credits the horsey community for being instrumental in her recovery.
“I’ve been so lucky to have such a circle of support, from my friends to my sponsors and British Dressage, and Carl has been there through thick and thin. You don’t realise who you have around you until you have to rely on them, and it’s amazing who will step up, sometimes people you don’t expect. With the amount of flowers I received after the accident I could have opened a florist!”
To read the full interview with Jo Barry, don’t miss the current issue of Horse & Hound magazine, which is out until 4 July