From jockey to wheelchair tennis star: ‘I knew I couldn’t feel my legs’

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  • With 50 point-to-point winners and 14 under Rules to her name, Sarah Gaisford was beginning to think about starting a new career when a fall at Exeter Racecourse left her paralysed from the chest down. She tells H&H how the Injured Jockeys Fund has helped her on the road to recovery

    Devon-based Sarah Gaisford grew up riding, hunting with the Devon and Somerset Staghounds and the Taunton Vale, as well as dabbling in a little bit of polo at Taunton Polo Club. After leaving school she rode out for trainer Jimmy Frost and throughout her twenties worked for National Hunt trainers including Martin Hill and Miranda Bragg, as well as a couple of flat trainers in Australia.

    Altogether Sarah rode 50 point-to-point winners, including 14 under Rules and in 2005/6 was crowned joint runner-up with Charlotte Tizzard to Rose Davidson for the NH Ladies Championship Title (Amateur Jockeys Association of GB).

    At the age of 39, Sarah was starting to think about a change in career, and had sat an A level in Anatomy and Physiology with a view to go on and study the Bowen Technique.

    One foggy December day in 2007 Sarah was racing at Exeter, riding a horse called Festival Flyer for Miranda Bragg. She suffered a crashing fall over hurdles, which resulted in a five-horse pile up.

    “The last thing I remember was the horse flying over the hurdle,” says Sarah, “and then I woke up on a stretcher.”

    Sarah was immediately rushed to the Royal Devon & Exeter. “I knew I couldn’t feel my legs when I signed the surgery consent form,” she says. Sarah had crushed vertebrae T4, T5 & T6, and after a blood transfusion and a five hour operation to insert metal rods into her back she woke up in intensive care.

    ‘How am I going to walk my dog?’

    The fall had left Sarah paralysed from the chest down and in a wheelchair for the rest of her life. “It didn’t really hit me until I saw my new walking boots and I thought, ‘how am I going to walk my dog?’”

    She stayed at Exeter hospital for six weeks, before being transferred to the Spinal Treatment Centre in Salisbury.

    “The IJF were brilliant – they were on the phone, they’d come and see me to put my mind at ease, and if I needed anything or something sorting out they were there,” remembers Sarah.

    With a 12-year-old daughter at home, Sarah was keen to get back to Devon. “If I’d been in different circumstances, I know I would have benefited from going somewhere like Oaksey House, but I had to get home,” she says.

    Sarah and her daughter moved into a bungalow, and with the help of the IJF, had the house adapted for a wheelchair user — the doors widened, an en-suite bathroom fitted and the kitchen remodelled to include a lower hob and surfaces. The IJF also send a gardener once a month to do the jobs Sarah can’t do, like mowing the lawn.

    Thanks to the IJF, Sarah also sees a private physiotherapist once a week in Stroud. These sessions give her the impetus to keep working at home, using light weights to build upper body strength or walking around the house using her mobility aid. “It’s important to try and keep strong,” she says.

    Taking up wheelchair tennis

    Five years ago, Sarah took up wheelchair tennis. “It was a real challenge learning,” she laughs, “I don’t like losing.”

    The IJF contributed towards her sports wheelchair, and she also received a grant from the Dan Maskell Tennis Trust.

    With tennis coaches Anna Howe (Taunton Tennis Club) and Tonia Gooderham (Totnes Tennis Club) by her side, Sarah now trains six to 10 hours a week, and is competing regularly. The IJF sponsor her in five British tournaments a year, assisting with travel costs. This June she also hopes to go and compete in France.

    As a wheelchair tennis player, Sarah is currently ranked 131st worldwide and 9th in Great Britain. “This year, I’d like to get under 100 in the world rankings,” she says.

    “I’m pretty good in the head at the moment because tennis is keeping me focused. I’m really competitive so it gives me something to aim for and work towards.”

    With the help of the IJF and Riding for the Disabled, Sarah has also been back on a horse following her accident.

    In 2014, to raise awareness of the work of the IJF in recognition of their 50th anniversary, Sarah embarked on the Liberty Trails Dartmoor Challenge — a sponsored 10-mile ride across the moors — where she was joined by 30 supporters, also on horseback.

    Later that year, she also rode two miles round Exeter racecourse, accompanied by John Francome, MBE and Richard Pitman, and anyone who wanted to walk alongside her on the inside track. In total, she raised £21,000 for the charity.

    Sarah Gaisford Oct 9 JMJ 5 copy

    Credit: Liberty Trails

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    “The racing community have been really supportive, says Sarah. “They’re my extended family, and that’s how I feel about the IJF — I’d be stuck without them”.

    The Injured Jockeys Fund is Horse & Hound‘s charity for 2016. Donate now >>

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